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Dental Health Risks

Sleep Apnea


About sleep apnea

Sleep apnea is a condition that afflicts at least 25 million people in the U.S.1 There are two types of sleep apnea: obstructive and central. Obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) occurs when your upper airway becomes blocked during sleep, reducing or completely stopping your airflow. Central sleep apnea (CSA) occurs when your brain does not send the signals needed to breathe.

Undiagnosed or untreated sleep apnea can increase your risk of conditions such as cardiovascular disease, eye disorders, diabetes, cancer, kidney disease, pregnancy complications, dementia, sexual dysfunction, and behavioral disorders.2

The risk of sleep apnea increases as you age, but studies have shown that children and young adults are also susceptible.3 It is more common in men. The most common risk factors include high blood pressure, obesity, asthma, a neck size larger than 16 inches, excessive alcohol use, smoking, or a lack of physical activity. Genetics, such as a family history or your ethnicity, may also increase your risk.4

Common signs and symptoms of OSA and CSA may include:

  • Trouble breathing.
  • Frequent loud snoring.
  • Gasping for air during sleep.
  • Sleepiness or fatigue during the day.
  • A decrease in attention or concentration.
  • Dry mouth or headaches when you wake up.

Sleep apnea and your oral health

Sleep apnea can affect your oral health in several ways, including5:

Many people don't realize they are suffering from sleep apnea. Your dentist is a great frontline resource to identify signs that you may have this condition through routine exams and/or screenings and discussing potential issues with you. If OSA or CSA is suspected, they can refer you to a sleep medicine physician for evaluation and diagnosis. It is important to note that a dental license does not qualify your dentist to diagnose sleep apnea even if they are certified by the American Board of Dental Sleep Medicine since sleep apnea is a medical condition.6

OSA can be treated with dental solutions, but CSA cannot. If OSA is diagnosed by a sleep medicine physician, your dentist may discuss options to keep your airway open, manage bruxism, and treat dry mouth.

Mild to moderate OSA is often treated with an oral appliance to keep your airway open while you sleep. There are no oral appliances or dental treatments that can address CSA. If a sleep medicine physician diagnoses you with OSA, they may refer you to a dental specialist or orthodontist to custom-fit the appliance. The most common oral appliances used to improve breathing while you sleep are7:

  • A mouthpiece that covers your upper and lower teeth to hold your jaw in a position to prevent it from blocking your upper airway.
  • A device that holds your tongue forward to prevent it from blocking your upper airway.

More severe sleep apnea typically requires the use of a continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) or automatic positive airway pressure (APAP) device to provide constant airflow while you sleep.

Other steps you can take to reduce sleep apnea include:

  • Strictly following your recommended course of treatment.
  • Avoiding tobacco, drugs, and alcohol.
  • Focusing on a proper diet and avoiding sugary snacks.
  • Exercising and maintaining healthy body weight.

Women: Research has shown that women who have sleep apnea are at an increased risk of anxiety and depression than men. These conditions can lead to additional oral health-related issues.8

Children: Up to 4% of children between ages two and eight have sleep apnea,9, which significantly increases your child's oral health risks, primarily from dry mouth. They are typically the result of enlarged tonsils or adenoids that constrict the airway. Research has shown that children with sleep disorders were three times more likely to develop tooth decay and deeper gum pockets that can lead to periodontal disease. They also had more tooth sensitivity or pain, gum bleeding, and mouth sores than children without sleep apnea.10 Children with sleep disorders may also develop a habit of positioning their tongues forward in their mouths, causing the upper front teeth to tip outward. This can result in the need for orthodontic treatment and may also affect their speech development.

Additional Resources

Last accessed: 10/23/2023

Author: Fluent staff
Last updated: 12/20/2021Medical review: Thomas J. Greany DDS, 8/13/2021
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