Obstructive sleep apnea, or OSA, occurs when airway passages become blocked during sleep, cutting off breathing for brief but frequent periods. It is often accompanied by heavy snoring. OSA is increasingly being recognised in children and the sleep disturbances caused by OSA can lead to daytime learning and behaviour problems in children, as well as more serious health consequences.
Dr. Daniele Friberg of the Karolinska Institutet in Stockholm and colleagues sought to evaluate the role of heredity and environment in OSA and sleep-disordered breathing by looking at hospitalisation data for the entire population of Sweden age 18 and younger, a total of 2.7 million people.
Between 1997 and 2004, Friberg and her colleagues found, 854 boys and 627 girls received a hospital diagnosis of OSA. Another 13,656 boys and 11,648 girls were diagnosed with enlarged tonsils or enlarged tonsils and adenoids.
Boys who had a sibling diagnosed with OSA were 33.2 times more likely to have received the diagnosis themselves, while for girls the risk was increased 40.5-fold.
Boys with a sibling with enlarged tonsils or tonsils and adenoids were 4.53 times as likely to have enlarged tonsils or adenoids themselves, while the risk was nearly 5-fold greater for girls.
While the researchers weren't able to distinguish between the roles of heredity and early environment based on the data, they suggest that both may play a role in whether or not a child develops sleep-disordered breathing.
Based on the findings, Friberg said, parents and doctors should be on the lookout for symptoms of sleep-disordered breathing in the brothers and sisters of children diagnosed with the condition.
"Early diagnosis and treatment (of OSA) is important," Friberg noted in an email to Reuters Health, adding that "it may be a progressive syndrome with fatal consequences if left untreated."
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