Alaska Sleep Education Center

When teens have severe Obstructive Sleep Apnea

Posted by Julia Higginson on Jun 6, 2017 12:18:58 PM


Teens and sleep go hand in hand, but for some adolescents sleep is allusive. There are so many factors that can interrupt your teens sleep: late night studying, an over-packed schedule, social interaction, late night screen time.

Getting at least 8-10 hours of quality sleep should be the aim for every teenager. Symptoms of sleep deprivation start to show when the nightly average is below eight hours. Sleep deprivation can affect your teen’s health, weight, academics, and even their complexion. Too little sleep can also put your teen at risk for injuries and car accidents.

Teens and sleep

We usually focus on sleep when our children are little and still need naps, but your teen’s sleep patterns are just as important to focus on. Sleep patterns change after your teen goes through puberty. The brain’s circadian system (biological clock) changes as your child crosses over from childhood to being a teenager. The change occurs because of a complex interaction between brain development and the impact of your teen’s environment.

Your teen no longer fits into the going to be bed early and waking up early pattern from childhood. Their biological clocks are now sending signals to stay up later and wake up later. Add in all the demands they have of school, sports, activities, and social life and staying up later becomes a natural part of your teen’s sleep patterns. Waking up later isn’t always an option because of before school activities and early school start times. All of this sets up an environment for teens to be excessively sleepy.

Healthy sleep is essential for your teen’s still developing brain. Not getting enough sleep or having difficulty sleeping can lead your teen to daytime sleepiness, limited ability to learn, and irregular behavior. It can also lead to unhealthy eating habits such as excess sugar and caffeine as your teen tries to find ways to get an extra jolt of energy.

If you worry your teen’s sleep problems might be more than too much work or social interactions, you might want to have them checked for obstructive sleep apnea (OSA). OSA is a growing health problem among adolescents yet the risk factors of untreated and severe OSA among teens are not well understood. There are several types of sleep apnea that teenagers might develop, but obstructive sleep apnea is the most common. Adolescents who have obstructive sleep apnea are faced nightly with the repeated stopping and starting of breathing during sleep.

Signs your teenager has sleep apnea

Symptoms of sleep apnea may have been present since childhood without being diagnosed. Teens are often seen as having trouble sleeping at night and as being sleepy during the day so symptoms are often overlooked.

You might notice your teen snoring during sleep or maybe they seem to be more irritable during the day. Some snoring may be normal but loud snoring three or more nights a week warrants looking into. Another often overlooked symptom is a slip in academic performance. The average grades of teens with OSA tend to be worse than the grades of teens who have normal breathing during sleep. The reason being that teens who suffer from sleep apnea are too tired to concentrate on learning and on school work.

Behavior problems are another red flag to watch out for. Moodiness, lashing out, irritability, and even depression are often seen as normal teen behavior. However, all of these behavior problems can also be a sign that your teen isn’t sleeping well because of sleep apnea. Other symptoms to look for include:

  • Snoring
  • Breathing pauses during sleep
  • Difficulty falling asleep
  • Irritability
  • Hyperactivity
  • Difficulty staying asleep
  • Restless sleep
  • Mouth breathing
  • Daytime sleepiness
  • Slips in academic performance
  • Unusual events during sleep (sleep waking, nightmares, night terrors)

If your teen is showing any signs of OSA, it is paramount to talk to their doctor as soon as possible. Your teen might need sleep testing by a board-certified sleep medicine physician.    

Risks of severe obstructive sleep apnea

Obstructive sleep apnea is usually classified as ranging from mild to severe. The risk for serious complications climbs the more severe your teen’s sleep apnea is. So what puts your teen at risk for severe OSA? Strong risk factors for severe OSA include a higher body mass index, the size of tonsils and adenoids, and a family history of apnea. Research also suggests that males are at a higher risk of severe sleep apnea.

If your teen has severe obstructive sleep apnea that means there are 30 or more episodes of reduced or stopped breathing every hour. You might think your teen seems to be sleeping a lot, but the truth is their sleep is constantly being disturbed by the apnea. Teens with severe sleep apnea might be getting four hours of sleep even though they have been “sleeping” all night.

The continual sleep disturbances from stopping breathing that many times an hour puts your teen at risk for high blood pressure, pulmonary hypertension, stroke, heart disease, and congestive heart failure. Another concern is weight gain, which will make the OSA and accompanying health risks worse. Poor sleep or too little sleep can wreck havoc on the hormones that control appetite.


The treatment of your teen’s obstructive sleep apnea depends on the cause. Obstructive sleep apnea means that something is getting in the way of breathing. The aim of treatment for severe OSA is to overcome whatever that obstruction might be.

One of the most commonly prescribed treatments for OSA is the use of a continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) machine. For a lot of teens suffering from severe obstructive sleep apnea, the CPAP machine is hard or difficult to use.

One of the biggest reasons teens may have difficulty in complying to CPAP treatment is embarrassment. Using a machine that is seen as bulky and awkward can make your teen feel different from peers. They might refuse to use it at home or to bring it on vacations or overnight trips out of fear that someone might see them using the CPAP.

The fear of feeling different or being made fun of often outweighs the benefits of using CPAP therapy for many teens. If CPAP is determined to be the best option, talk to your teen about how the risks of high blood pressure, pulmonary hypertension, stroke, heart disease, and congestive heart failure are far more life altering than embarrassment. Help your teen see that using the CPAP will not only help them sleep better but that it will lead to a healthier life down the toad. Encourage your teen to talk to you and their doctor about any concerns they have.

Surgery is always an option for teens who are noncompliant with CPAP therapy. For some teens, sleep apnea is caused by enlarged tonsils and adenoids. Surgical removal of the tonsils and adenoids creates more room in the throat for your teen to breathe. There are other surgeries available if the cause of your teen’s apnea is something other than enlarged tonsils and adenoids. Surgeries to correct tongue size or to correct facial or jaw abnormalities can all aid in making breathing easier.

Weight loss efforts are essential if obesity is the cause of the apnea. In overweight teens, excess body fat can cause the soft tissues of the mouth and throat to enlarge creating a blockage in the airway. Exercise and healthy eating can help reduce the weight that is contributing to the sleep apnea.

If you are concerned that your teen’s sleepiness and behavior are related to sleep apnea, don’t delay in seeking out help. At the Alaska Sleep Clinic, we can help diagnosis and treat teens with mild to severe obstructive sleep apnea. For a free pediatric phone consultation, click the link below.


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