Obstructive sleep apnoea (OSA)

How is OSA treated in children?

OSA is a treatable condition and if your child is diagnosed with it there is lots of help available. These are the options available to treat OSA in children.

Common treatments for OSA in children

Nasal inhaled corticosteroid sprays or drops

They may be helpful in mild OSA or when an operation to remove the tonsils and adenoids (adenotonsillectomy) has not been completely successful. The steroid drugs are like the ones in asthma inhalers but they are designed to reduce inflammation in the nose. They are particularly useful if the child has associated allergic asthma or other allergy-related conditions. 

Children of pre-school age might have difficulty accepting sprays squirted into their nostrils and may do better with drops.

"Milo had an urgent operation to remove his tonsils and adenoids just after his fourth birthday. The procedure was a success and his recovery was pretty quick.

Now, following the surgery, his breathing is great."

Rebecca, mum of Milo

Adenotonsillectomy

This is an operation to remove the child’s tonsils and adenoids. It can be successful in treating OSA, particularly if there are no other medical problems. In otherwise healthy children it is successful in 9 out of 10 cases.

Some centres will only carry out this procedure after an overnight study has confirmed the diagnosis. Others will go ahead with the operation if the diagnosis is clear from talking to you about your concerns and examining the child.

Removing the tonsils and adenoids may not cure OSA in children with a small chin, large tongue or cleft palate, or in obese children, or in those with other health conditions.

Weight loss

If your child is overweight or obese, weight loss can be helpful in controlling OSA.

Continuous or bi-level positive airway pressure (CPAP or BiPAP) CPAP or BiPAP

This is a treatment for a small number of children with OSA. It’s a machine that pushes air through a specially fitted mask worn at night in order to keep the airway open. The machine uses ordinary room air and is powered from the home electrical power supply. CPAP machines have one pressure setting. BiPAP machines can be set to different pressures for breathing in and breathing out. These machines are managed by a specialist respiratory paediatric teams.

Rarer treatments

  • Oral jaw repositioning devices. This option could be considered for OSA in some children with an abnormally shaped face or jaw.
  • Tracheostomy. This is only used in cases of very severe OSA, usually in the context of other medical conditions and only if all other options have failed.  

Does sleeping position matter?

Your child’s sleeping position can affect their breathing. Some positions are better than others to keep the airway open. Sleeping on their front or side may be better than sleeping on their back. Some parents find it helps to check their child’s sleeping position and move them if their symptoms are bad.

Babies should always be laid on their back to sleep, unless you have been told otherwise by medical staff.

Remember

OSA is a treatable condition in most children and if your child is diagnosed then there are lots of things that can be done to help them.

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Last medically reviewed: September 2019. Due for review: July 2022

This information uses the best available medical evidence and was produced with the support of people living with lung conditions. Find out how we produce our information. If you’d like to see our references get in touch.