People with allergies have lots of things to worry about on a regular basis, particularly come spring time. Stuffy nose, itchy red eyes, sneezing, nasal congestion, sore throat, headaches, overall fatigue, etc., the list could go on and on. And as if these things aren’t distressing enough, some suffer another problem that is equally stressful for them and their partners – snoring. Better known as sleep apnea, snoring can get easily exacerbated by allergens – it is referred to as sleep apnea allergies.
Sleep apnea allergies: The connection between allergies and sleep apnea
Anyone susceptible to dust mites, pollen, and any other small debris that is found in the air, especially during spring time, should indeed prepare themselves for the worst. For those with Obstructive Sleep Apnea (OSA), the allergy season can be especially worrying.
Generally, allergic reactions are believed to disrupt sleep. The logic is simple: the most common reaction of the body when it comes in contact with allergens is allergic rhinitis – nasal inflammation caused by allergies. This congestion in the nasal cavity interrupts your breathing by causing blockage to the airways and dries the mouth – both factors lead to snoring or apnea. Therefore, sleep apnea allergies happen when an ongoing allergic reaction is interfering with sleep.
Allergies can also lead to swelling of the adenoids or tonsils, which can again potentially block the airways and lead to snoring.
Experts estimate up to 42% of Americans suffer allergic rhinitis, with varying symptoms, such as an itchy or runny nose, sneezing, watery eyes. Also, those with allergies are twice as likely to experience poor sleep due to different types of sleeping disorders such as sleep apnea and insomnia, than those without allergies.
What exactly happens when you have sleep apnea allergies?
When harmless foreign materials like pollen, dust, or mold are encountered by a person allergic to these materials, the immune system overreacts by generating antibodies to attack the allergens. The job of the immune system is to defend the body from harmful microorganisms like bacteria, viruses, etc., and destroy them when they enter the body. In the case of people with allergies, their immune system recognizes foreign materials as something they need to attack and destroy.
This overreaction of the immune system is characterized through the irritation and inflammation of the nasal passages, which leads to uncomfortable symptoms like sneezing, nasal congestion, and watery eyes. These symptoms often get worse at night, causing a disruption to sleep.
How can a person become allergic to something?
Allergens can enter the body in different forms, they can be ingested, inhaled, or enter through the skin. Common allergic reactions like hay fever, hives, or certain types of asthma, are linked to the antibody called immunoglobulin (IgE). Each type of this antibody can be very specific and only reacts to certain types of allergens (or certain pollen). Meaning, one can be allergic to a certain type of pollen, but not another.
If a vulnerable person comes in contact with an allergen, the body will start to produce huge amounts of similar IgE antibodies. The next time the person gets exposed to the same allergen, the body will overreact causing an allergic reaction. Allergic reactions symptoms vary depending on the type and amount of the allergen an allergic person is exposed to, and the way the body’s immune system reacts to that specific allergen.
While not all get allergies, allergies can affect anyone, regardless of race, gender, and age. Though it is usually more common among children, first-time occurrence can happen to anyone, at any age. In many cases, it can recur after a long time of remission. Stress, smoking, hormones, environmental irritants, and even perfume can cause development or increased severity of allergies.
How allergies lead to sleep apnea
Since most allergies get worse at night, sufferers miss out on sleep. Not getting quality sleep on a regular basis can make you feel exhausted and grumpy the next day, which doesn’t only impair performance at work or school, but also negatively affects health and wellbeing. Poor sleep increases the body’s stress and anxiety response, which as a result, makes it even harder to fall asleep.
List of sleep disturbances caused by allergies
Allergies can affect the quality of sleep in so many ways. People with allergic rhinitis are more likely to suffer from a long list of sleeping problems, such as:
- Poor sleep quality
- Short sleep
- Trouble falling and staying asleep
There also seems to be a correlation between the severity of the allergic symptoms and the severity of the sleep problem. Worse symptoms lead to worse sleep quality.
For some sufferers of allergic sleep apnea allergies, difficulty sleeping can lead to more serious sleeping problems such as, restless sleep, bed-wetting, obstructive sleep apnea (OSA), and different forms of sleep-disoriented breathing (abnormal and difficult respiration during sleep, including chronic sleep apnea and chronic snoring). This is particularly concerning; poor sleep quality can also increase the risk of certain chronic conditions such as high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease, and obesity.
Moreover, children who experience sleep-disoriented breathing are twice as likely to suffer from allergic rhinitis than those who don’t have sleep apnea. Poor sleep is extremely bad for children, as it causes them to miss school days, have difficulty concentrating and remembering things, and even behavioral problems.
While allergies don’t specifically cause you to snore, there seems to be a strong connection. A study published in the American Review of Respiratory Disease says people with allergic rhinitis experience longer and more frequent obstructive sleep apnea than in patients without allergic conditions.
Subsequently, people with allergic rhinitis who use nasal decongestants with nasal steroids experience better sleep quality, reduced daytime fatigue, and improved quality of life. This is according to a study published in the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology.
A 2011 study published in European Archives of Oto-rhino-laryngology seems to support this, as it shows how nasal steroids can improve sleep quality, and may be useful for sufferers of mild obstructive sleep apnea. However, the paper emphasized that such allergy treatments are not by themselves enough to treat most patients of OSA.
Allergies don’t only make it difficult to fall asleep, it also disrupts your ability to stay asleep. Allergy sufferers wake up in the middle of the night to cough or sneeze due to a congested nose. Over time, this sleep disruption adds up, leading to a vicious cycle. Some people end up relying on alcohol or sedatives just to fall and stay asleep, which is never a good idea.
If you regularly suffer from sleep apnea allergies, then it is best to consult your doctor for the right course of treatment for you. Your doctor can also teach you how to better avoid allergens and reduce the risk of snoring caused by allergies.