COVID-19 patients with sleep apnea could be at additional risk

According to a new study from the University of Warwick, people who have been diagnosed with obstructive sleep apnoea could be at increased risk of adverse outcomes from COVID-19.

The conclusion is drawn from a systematic review of studies that reported outcomes for COVID-19 patients diagnosed with obstructive sleep apnoea. Published in the journal Sleep Medicine Reviews, the review highlights the need to further investigate the impact of the virus on those with the sleep condition and better identify those currently undiagnosed.

Obstructive sleep apnoea is characterized by complete or partial blockage of the airways during sleep when the muscles there become weaker. It is commonly diagnosed in people who snore or appear to stop breathing or make choking sounds during sleep, and those who are obese in particular are more likely to experience it. If you are told that you make strange noises when you sleep or seem to stop breathing during sleep, you should speak to their GP about being referred to a sleep service to be checked for the condition. You can also find more information about the condition here: www.sleep-apnoea-trust.org and www.hope2sleep.co.uk.

Many of the risk factors and comorbidities associated with sleep apnoea, such as diabetes, obesity, and hypertension, are similar to those associated with poor COVID-19 outcomes. However, the researchers wanted to investigate whether being diagnosed with obstructive sleep apnoea conferred an additional risk on top of those factors.

The systematic review looked at eighteen studies up to June 2020 regarding obstructive sleep apnoea and COVID-19; of these, eight were mainly related to the risk of death from COVID-19, and ten were related to diagnosis, treatment, and management of sleep apnoea. Although few studies of obstructive sleep apnoea in COVID-19 had been performed at the time, there is evidence to suggest that many patients who presented to intensive care had obstructive sleep apnoea, and in diabetic patients, it may confer an increased risk that is independent of other risk factors. In one large study in patients with diabetes hospitalized for COVID-19, those being treated for obstructive sleep apnoea were at 2.8 times greater risk of dying on the seventh day after hospital admission.

Researchers believe that up to 85% of obstructive sleep apnoea disorders are undetected in the UK, suggesting that the 1.5 million people in the UK currently diagnosed with the condition may be just the tip of the iceberg. With obesity rates and other related risk factors on the increase, the researchers also believe that obstructive sleep apnea rates are also increasing. The review highlights that the pandemic has also had worldwide effects on the ongoing diagnosis, management, and treatment of patients with this and other sleep conditions. Moving forward, it may be necessary to explore new diagnosis and treatment pathways for these individuals.

The lead author of the study Dr. Michelle Miller of Warwick Medical School said: “Without a clear picture of how many people have obstructive sleep apnoea, it is difficult to determine exactly how many people with the condition may have experienced worse outcomes due to COVID-19.

“This condition is greatly underdiagnosed, and we don’t know whether undiagnosed sleep apnoea confers an even greater risk or not.

“It is likely that COVID-19 increases oxidative stress and inflammation and has effects on the bradykinin pathways, all of which are also affected in obstructive sleep apnoea patients. When you have individuals in which these mechanisms are already affected, it wouldn’t be surprising that COVID-19 affects them more strongly.”

Treatment for obstructive sleep apnoea with continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) has been shown to have some beneficial effects on these mechanisms. Treatment must be optimized for these individuals. In the UK, the British Sleep Society with the OSA alliance, has released guidelines regarding CPAP use during the pandemic.

The researchers feel it is important that those diagnosed with obstructive sleep apnoea are aware of the potential additional risk and are taking appropriate precautions to reduce their exposure to the virus. Further research is required to determine whether these individuals need to be added to the list of vulnerable groups that may need to shield if the virus’s transmission increases.

Dr. Miller adds: “This is a group of patients that should be more aware that obstructive sleep apnoea could be an additional risk if they get COVID-19. Make sure you are compliant with your treatment and take as many precautions as possible to reduce your risk, such as wearing a mask, social distancing, and getting tested as soon as you notice any symptoms. Now more than ever is the time to follow your treatment plan as diligently as possible.

“Hospitals and doctors should also be recording whether their patients have obstructive sleep apnoea as a potential risk factor, and it should be included in studies and outcomes data for COVID-19. We need more data to determine whether this is something we should be more concerned about.”

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Materials provided by the University of Warwick.

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