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Study: Sleep apnea may increase risk for severe COVID-19, death from virus

Study: Sleep apnea may increase risk for severe COVID-19, death from virus
People with sleep apnea may be at increased risk for severe COVID-19, according to a new study. Photo courtesy of Penn Medicine

Nov. 10 (UPI) -- Adults with sleep apnea appear to be at higher risk for severe COVID-19 and death from the virus, a study published Wednesday by JAMA Network Open found.

Those with the common sleep disorder are 31% more likely to be hospitalized after being infected with the virus and 31% more likely to die from it, the data showed.

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However, the sleep disorder does not increase a person's risk for infection, the researchers said.

"If there are concerning symptoms of sleep apnea, [people should] consider discussing with their health care providers the appropriateness of diagnostic sleep testing," study co-author Dr. Reena Mehra told UPI in an email.

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"For those with an established diagnosis of sleep disordered breathing, such as sleep apnea, these data suggest that lowering of oxygen during sleep may result in poorer outcomes [with] COVID-19," said Mehra, who is director of sleep disorders research at the Cleveland Clinic.

About one in 15 adults in the United States have sleep apnea, a condition in which pauses in breathing or periods of shallow breathing during sleep occur more often than normal, resulting in disruptions in oxygen flow through the body, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

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The most common and well-known symptoms of sleep apnea are loud snoring and changes in breathing patterns.

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The condition can cause a condition called hypoxia, in which the body or a region of the body is deprived of adequate oxygen supply, CDC says.

Hypoxia also is a complication associated with severe COVID-19, and a common reason for hospitalization after infection, Mehra and her colleagues said.

For this study, the researchers analyzed data on more than 350,000 adults tested for the virus within the Cleveland Clinic Health System, in Ohio and Florida, between March and November last year.

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Just over 5,400 of those tested for COVID-19 had undergone a prior evaluation for sleep apnea, the researchers said.

Among those previously assessed for sleep apnea, 1,935, or 36%, tested positive for the virus. Of those with COVID-19, 1,018, or 53%, met the criteria for sleep apnea, the data showed.

Meanwhile, 1,646, or 47%, of the participants who tested negative for the virus had signs of the sleep disorder.

Participants who had both COVID-19 and sleep apnea were hospitalized with the virus at a 31% higher rate than those infected who did not have the sleep disorder.

In addition, those with both conditions were 31% more likely to die from the virus.

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It is possible that the disruption in oxygen flow caused by sleep apnea leads to increased inflammation in key organs in the body, including the lungs and heart, resulting in more severe COVID-19, though more research is needed to confirm this, the researchers said.

"[Our] findings suggest that breathing disorders specific to sleep are the drivers of ... poor outcomes" with COVID-19, Mehra said.

However, "further data is needed to determine whether treatment of this sleep disordered breathing improves COVID-19 outcomes," she said.

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