Sleep Apnea’s Impact on Oral Health

Sleep apnea, a condition characterized by repeated interruptions in breathing during sleep, is often associated with snoring, fatigue, and other health complications. However, what many people don’t realize is that sleep apnea can also have a significant impact on oral health. Let’s delve into the intricate relationship between sleep apnea and the health of our mouth.

What is Sleep Apnea?

Sleep apnea is a serious sleep disorder in which an individual’s breathing repeatedly stops and starts during sleep. This interruption in breathing can occur hundreds of times in a night and often lasts for 10 seconds or longer. There are three main types of sleep apnea:

  • Obstructive Sleep Apnea (OSA): This is the most common form of sleep apnea. It occurs when the muscles in the back of the throat fail to keep the airway open, despite the effort to breathe. This obstruction is typically caused when the soft tissue in the rear of the throat collapses and closes during sleep.
  • Central Sleep Apnea (CSA): Unlike OSA, central sleep apnea isn’t caused by a blockage of the airway. Instead, the brain fails to send the appropriate signals to the muscles that control breathing. This means that an individual makes no effort to breathe for brief periods. CSA is less common than OSA.
  • Complex Sleep Apnea Syndrome: Also known as treatment-emergent central sleep apnea, this condition is a combination of both OSA and CSA. It’s usually observed in people who are being treated for OSA but still have sleep apnea episodes due to both obstructions and a failure of the brain to send the right breathing signals.

How Sleep Apnea Affects Oral Health

Dry Mouth

One of the most common symptoms of sleep apnea is dry mouth. People with sleep apnea often breathe through their mouths during sleep, leading to reduced saliva production. Saliva plays a crucial role in neutralizing acids and cleaning the mouth. Without it, there’s an increased risk of cavities, gum disease, and bad breath.

Bruxism (Teeth Grinding)

Many individuals with sleep apnea also suffer from bruxism, or teeth grinding. This unconscious act can wear down the enamel, leading to increased tooth sensitivity and even fractures. Over time, bruxism can also lead to temporomandibular joint disorders (TMJ), causing pain and difficulty in jaw movement. Wearing a nightguard can help alleviate bruxism and some can even help with keeping the airway open. 

Gum Disease

Sleep apnea can reduce the oxygen levels in the bloodstream. Low oxygen levels can encourage the growth of harmful bacteria in the mouth. These bacteria can lead to gum infections, inflammation, and eventually periodontal disease. Gum disease not only affects the health of your mouth but can also have systemic implications, including an increased risk of heart disease.

Tooth Decay

As mentioned earlier, dry mouth can increase the risk of cavities. The lack of saliva allows food particles to remain in the mouth, providing a breeding ground for bacteria. These bacteria produce acids that erode the tooth enamel, leading to cavities.

Tongue Indentations

People with sleep apnea often have indentations on the sides of their tongues. This is because they may thrust their tongue against their teeth, trying to keep the airway open. Over time, this can lead to bite problems and misalignment of teeth.

Mouth Sores and Cracked Lips

The constant mouth breathing associated with sleep apnea can lead to mouth sores and cracked lips. These conditions can be painful and may take longer to heal due to the dry environment in the mouth.

In Conclusion

Sleep apnea’s effects on oral health are profound and often overlooked. Regular dental check-ups are crucial for those with sleep apnea to monitor and address any arising oral health issues. Additionally, treating sleep apnea can not only improve sleep quality but also protect your oral health. If you suspect you have sleep apnea, it’s essential to consult with a healthcare professional to get a proper diagnosis and treatment plan. Remember, your oral health is a window to your overall health. By understanding the connection between sleep apnea and oral health, you can take proactive steps to ensure both a good night’s sleep and a healthy smile.

Dr. Snehlata Kulhari

Dr. Snehlata Kulhari completed her Bachelors of Dental Surgery (BDS) at Government Dental College in Punjab, India and her Doctor of Dental Medicine (DMD) degree at the Henry M. Goldman School of Dental Medicine in Boston. She has been practicing dentistry since 2011 and has founded Smile Mantra Family Dentistry to provide dental care and education to the community of Cary, NC. Dr. Kulhari stays up to date on the latest dental research and advancements in order to offer her patients exceptional dental care. 


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