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Link found between early lower respiratory tract infections and development of obstructive sleep apnea in children

September 17, 2021

Several birth cohorts have defined the pivotal role of early lower respiratory tract infections (LRTI) in the inception of pediatric respiratory conditions. However, the association between early LRTI and the development of obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) in children had not previously been made.

Now, for the first time, researchers at Children’s National Hospital have identified the association between early LRTI and the development of OSA in children, according to a study published in the journal SLEEP. 

“These results suggest that respiratory syncytial virus LRTI may contribute to the pathophysiology of OSA in children,” said Gustavo Nino, M.D., director of sleep medicine at Children’s National. 

The study also demonstrated that children with a history of severe respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) bronchiolitis during early infancy had more than double the odds of developing OSA during the first five years of life independently of other risk factors. 

“The results suggest that RSV LRTI may contribute to the pathophysiology of OSA in children, raising concern for the possibility that primary prevention strategies can hinder the initial establishment of OSA following early viral LRTIs,” said Dr. Nino. “Primary prevention of OSA in children would have a dramatic effect in reducing the increasing incidence of this condition and in preventing its detrimental effects on childhood health and beyond.”

The novel findings also raise the possibility that anticipatory strategies and interventions can be developed to identify and prevent the initial establishment of OSA following viral respiratory infections during early infancy. This could provide a dramatic effect in reducing the increasing incidence of this condition and its multiple detrimental effects on childhood health and beyond.

“Our study offers a new paradigm for investigating mechanisms implicated in the early pathogenesis of OSA in the pediatric population,” said Dr. Nino.

Marishka Brown, Ph.D., director of the National Center on Sleep Disorders Research at the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI), part of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), agreed. 

“The findings from this study suggest that viral lower respiratory tract infections could predispose to the development of sleep-disordered breathing in later childhood,” Brown said. “More research to determine how these infections affect airway function could lead to a better understanding of how sleep apnea develops in pediatric patients.” 

This study includes funding support from the NIH, including the NHLBI. 

The Pulmonary Division at Children’s National has been ranked as one of the top ten programs in the nation by U.S. News & World Report. 

Media contact: Gabrielle Little | 860-818-2345


About Children’s National Hospital

Children’s National Hospital, based in Washington, D.C., celebrates 150 years of pediatric care, research and commitment to community. Volunteers opened the hospital in 1870 with 12 beds for children displaced after the Civil War. Today, 150 years stronger, it is among the nation’s top 10 children’s hospitals. It is ranked No.1 for newborn care for the fifth straight year and ranked in all specialties evaluated by U.S. News & World Report. Children’s National is transforming pediatric medicine for all children. In 2021, the Children’s National Research & Innovation Campus opened, the first in the nation dedicated to pediatric research. Children’s National has been designated three times in a row as a Magnet® hospital, demonstrating the highest standards of nursing and patient care delivery. This pediatric academic health system offers expert care through a convenient, community-based primary care network and specialty care locations in the D.C. metropolitan area, including Maryland and Virginia. Children’s National is home to the Children’s National Research Institute and Sheikh Zayed Institute for Pediatric Surgical Innovation. It is recognized for its expertise and innovation in pediatric care and as a strong voice for children through advocacy at the local, regional and national levels.

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