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COPD + Sleep Apnea and dealing with both

More than 65 million people worldwide have COPD, and almost one billion people in the world have sleep apnea. It stands to reason that many people will suffer from both but never really understand what it means to live with both of these.

What is COPD?

COPD stands for chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. It is an umbrella term for lung disorders such as emphysema, chronic bronchitis, and chronic asthma.


Emphysema is a long-term condition of the lungs where a person experiences shortness of breath caused by the over-inflation of the sacs inside the lungs. Over time, the inner walls of the air sacs are weakened, creating large air spaces in the lungs, where there should be a sponge-like texture. There should be an exchange of gas in the lungs, but emphysema lungs have been destroyed in a way that impacts blood vessels – affecting blood and airflow.

Chronic Bronchitis

Often caused by smoking, chronic bronchitis occurs when the bronchial tubes produce an excessive amount of mucus. Coughing, chest tightness, and difficulty breathing are symptoms of bronchitis.

Chronic Asthma

Asthma occurs when the airways are inflamed and narrowed. The constant inflammation leads to increased swelling, wheezing, shortness of breath, and coughing. It can impact people of all ages.

Who does it impact?

COPD typically worsens over time. The immediate symptoms are not extreme, nor do they go away. The main cause of COPD is smoking1, but it can also be due to secondhand smoke or other environmental pollutants. It is a leading cause of death in the United States, impacting those around 45 and projected to rise. Because the nature of COPD is for it to worsen over time, it is essential to see your doctor if you believe that you are showing symptoms. However, the symptoms can be managed to achieve a good quality of life.

Sleep Apnea

What is it?

There are three types of sleep apnea. They are obstructive sleep apnea, central sleep apnea, and complex sleep apnea syndrome. The most common type is obstructive sleep apnea. It occurs when the muscles at the back of the throat relax while sleeping, hindering oxygen flow throughout the body. The brain suddenly startles you awake because of the inability to breathe. This happens repeatedly, often throughout the night but is so quick it’s usually not memorable.

Who does it impact?

Sleep apnea can impact anyone but most often influences those with certain characteristics. Those most commonly affected by sleep apnea are typically male, snore, are obese, or have a narrow airway.

Overlap Syndrome

Overlap Syndrome is when an individual has both COPD and sleep apnea. It has been observed that an average of 10-15% of COPD patients also has sleep apnea. Both of these conditions cause a reduction of blood oxygen levels while sleeping, which can exacerbate health problems and symptoms of both COPD and sleep apnea. Those with OSA already have difficulty getting enough oxygen at night, and combined with COPD; oxygen saturation can be dangerously low.


Both of these conditions impact quality sleep. Both COPD and sleep apnea can lead to heart disease, stroke, and depression. These overlaps can contribute to a more significant risk to overall cardiovascular health. Additionally, the risk for overall morbidity is increased2. These compounded risks are why it is essential to have the proper diagnosis and to seek treatment.


The main problem with overlap syndrome is insufficient oxygen to the brain. Fortunately, it is possible to treat both conditions with one device. The standard of treatment is CPAP or continuous positive airway pressure. CPAP aids by maintaining the proper oxygen levels that the body requires to function as it should, thereby improving the quality of life and reducing the high-risk symptoms. The benefits carry over to even helping with erectile dysfunction and other lung issues.

If you’re seeing signs of a respiratory concern, sleep apnea, or both, reach out to us to find out how a sleep study might benefit you!

  1. Smoking and Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD). Parallel Epidemics of the 21st Century. Rafael Laniado-Laborín. Int J Environ Res Public Health. 2009 Jan; 6(1): 209–224. Published online 2009 Jan 9.

  2. Lavie P et al. Mortality in sleep apnea patients: a multivariate analysis of risk factors. Sleep 1995;18(3):149-157

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