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Sleep Apnea May Increase Coronavirus Risk

With widespread panic and uncertainty surrounding the COVID-19 coronavirus bouncing around social media, it can be difficult to get a straight answer about the illness and its cause and prevention. But new information about how this illness infects the body may help prevent more cases.

Originating in China, the COVID-19 coronavirus has quickly spread around the world, including cases across the United States. Today, new cases are being reported daily, and fear of the illness remains high. Panicked consumers have emptied grocery store shelves, causing shortages of everything from toilet paper to hand sanitizer to meats and dairy products. Some have taken to wearing surgical masks in public, believing these devices will protect them from COVID-19. Others have begun “social distancing,” the practice of avoiding large groups and keeping a safe (6-foot) distance from other people outside of the home.

But what many people don’t know about is how the virus infects, and how your overall health comes into play during the infection process.

Dr. Kelley Mingus is a dentist in Bend, Oregon. He treats patients with sleep apnea in his clinic. Mingus says patients with sleep apnea are at an elevated risk of contracting COVID-19 while they sleep, because the virus is transferred via a process called aspiration.

“Aspiration is when fluid in your nose and throat makes its way past your voice box to your trachea,” he says. “This happens frequently with sleep apnea patients while they sleep. Without the presence of coronavirus, you may never realize you have aspirated, but if any of this virus is present in fluids in your nose and throat, aspiration will easily transport it to the trachea.”

Mingus says this highlights the importance of treating sleep apnea.

“When you prevent the aspiration from occurring, you reduce the risk of a coronavirus from making its way to the trachea,” he says.

Mingus recommends patients with untreated sleep apnea seek medical intervention for the condition, which can also cause depression and stroke, and worsen many other conditions, including diabetes and cancer.

“It was already a good idea to treat sleep apnea prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, but now it could be a key to preventing it,” he says.

Mingus says in his experience, most patients prefer custom sleep orthotics to devices like CPAP machines, which can be awkward and complicated to use. Furthermore, CPAP machines harbor germs and bacteria, especially if they have been in a room with someone who is ill.

“Custom orthotics are easier to use and much easier to clean,” says Mingus. “In times like these, this is a welcome feature.”

Other oral health tips for avoiding COVID-19 include brushing, flossing and using antibacterial mouthwash.