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Screening for Sleep Apnea Can Save Teen Lives


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We all know about the dangers of drunk drivers, but what about the dangers of exhausted drivers? According to the American Academy of Sleep Medicine , teens are at an especially high risk for dying in drowsy driving accidents.

Drowsy driving is bad for everyone – that's why laws limit how much truck drivers can drive, and requiring them to be screened for sleep apnea.  Truckers are considered high risk because when they fall asleep at the wheel, their vehicles can cause massive damage to everyone else on the road.  However, teens have their own issues which make them a high-risk group.

Why Teens are Prone to Drowsy Driving

Teen drivers are young and inexperienced drivers. They don’t have the muscle memory and routines of older drivers, which makes it even more dangerous for them to drive when sleepy. If they drift off at the wheel, they’re more likely to run off the road or into another vehicle.

Meanwhile, teens tend to be sleepier to begin with. School start times often are poorly matched with adolescent circadian rhythms, and teens are notoriously bad at sleep hygiene, especially when they have access to phones and other electronic devices. This means that our most inexperienced drivers are often our sleepiest.

How Your Dental Practice Can Help

There’s another issue facing teens.  The increase in obesity rates is leading to an increase in obstructive sleep apnea among teenagers, and many children with sleep apnea are never diagnosed – they grow up to become teens with sleep apnea. Many families don’t even realize their teen has a problem, which is where you can help screen teens, refer them for diagnosis, treat them, and save lives.

  • Make a sleep apnea screening a standard part of your teen dental appointments.  Ask other questions about their sleep and sleep hygiene too.  You may be the only medical professional in their life completing these screenings, especially if their main PCP contact is for a quick annual sports physical.
  • When a teen’s screening indicates sleep problems, talk to them and their parents. Mention how a lack of good sleep affects mood, physical health, academic performance, and driving.  Point out the high risk of driving tired.
  • Have a good selection of specialists who enjoy working with teams ready to go.  Teens with sleep apnea may need to see an allergist or an ENT. Some communities have sleep doctors who specialize in children and teens. Make sure you have resources for the parents ready to go and can refer quickly. Teens are busy, and if you delay the referral process, it may never happen.
  • Work with local high schools, churches, and clubs to educate teens about sleep apnea and drowsy driving. Teenagers are at an age where they’re beginning to take charge of their own health and wellness. You can make a big impact by getting out into the community and educating them about sleep apnea, sleep hygiene, and the dangers of drowsy driving.  

Don’t be shy about bringing these issues up with the teens in your practice and your life. It’s a tragedy when a teen driver is injured or killed in a car accident. By being proactive about sleep apnea education, you can save lives.