A new study reveals that during the winter and spring months, viruses alone — not allergies or asthma — can lead to an increased risk for sleep breathing disorders in children that can impair their mental and physical development.
Over time, sleep-disordered breathing in children can cause stunted growth, heart disease, and neurocognitive problems associated with poor academic performance, impaired language development, and behavioral problems.
Until now, researchers believed that asthma, allergies, and viral respiratory infections, such as the flu, contributed to disorders that affect children’s breathing during sleep. Now, however, they have found that viruses alone contribute to these breathing problems.
Lead researcher Dr. Riva Tauman and her colleagues at Tel Aviv University say the study has broad implications for the treatment of sleep-breathing disorders in children.
“We knew from research and clinical practice that sleep-disordered breathing in children gets worse during the colder months,” Tauman said. “What we didn’t expect is that the trend has nothing to do with asthma or allergies.”
During the study, researchers statistically analyzed data of more than 2,000 children and adolescents who were referred to the sleep center to be tested for suspected sleep-disordered breathing between 2008 and 2010.
The researchers found that pediatric sleep-disordered breathing is worse in the winter months than in the summer. The seasonal variability is most apparent in children less than five years old, they found.
The researchers also found that wheezing and asthma do not contribute to these problems. Based on their findings, the researchers speculate that viral respiratory infections — which are more common in younger children during colder months — are the main reason behind the seasonal variability found in pediatric sleep-disordered breathing.
The researchers estimate that seven percent fewer children would have been diagnosed with sleep-disordered breathing if all the tests had been done in the summer.
“Our study suggests that if a child comes into the sleep laboratory in the winter with a mild case, I may consider not treating him. I can assume he will be better in the summer,” said Tauman.
“But if he has only mild symptoms in the summer, I can assume they are more severe in the winter.”