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CDHO Advisory: Sleep Apnea









Use of the dental hygiene interventions of scaling of teeth and root planing including curetting surrounding tissue, orthodontic and restorative practices, and other invasive interventions for persons1 with or at risk of sleep apnea.


Cite as College of Dental Hygienists of Ontario, CDHO Advisory Sleep Apnea, 2023-05-17


Scaling of teeth and root planing including curetting surrounding tissue, orthodontic and restorative practices, and other invasive interventions (“the Procedures”).



Sleep apnea


Advanced practice nurses
Dental assistants
Dental hygienists
Health professional students Nurses
Public health departments
Regulatory bodies


To guide dental hygienists at the point of care relative to the use of the Procedures for persons who have or are at risk of sleep apnea, chiefly as follows.

  1. Understanding the medical condition.
  2. Sourcing medications information.
  3. Taking the medical and medications history.
  4. Identifying and contacting the most appropriate healthcare provider(s) for medical advice.
  5. Understanding and taking appropriate precautions prior to and during the Procedures proposed.
  6. Deciding when and when not to proceed with the Procedures proposed.
  7. Dealing with adverse events arising during the Procedures.
  8. Record keeping.
  9. Advising the patient/client.


Child (2 to 12 years)
Adolescent (13 to 18 years)
Adult (19 to 44 years)
Middle Age (45 to 64 years)
Aged (65 to 79 years)
Aged 80 and over
Parents or guardians of children and young persons with sleep apnea.


For persons who have sleep apnea: to maximize health benefits and minimize adverse effects by promoting the performance of the Procedures at the right time with the appropriate precautions, and by discouraging the performance of the Procedures at the wrong time or in the absence of appropriate precautions.



Nomenclature of sleep apnea

Adapted from

Terminology varies among centres: the following is common but not universal.

Sleep apnea, a common disorder of various types in which breathing pauses or becomes shallow, with potentially serious consequences, comprises

  1. obstructive sleep apnea, in which the airway has collapsed or is blocked during sleep, resulting in shallow breathing or breathing pauses, apneas or apnea events or hypopneas
  2. central sleep apnea, when breathing repeatedly stops during sleep because the brain temporarily ceases sending nerve impulses to the muscles of breathing
  3. mixed sleep apnea, when obstructive sleep apnea and central sleep apnea occur together
  4. sleep-hypoventilation syndrome, when breathing fails to maintain oxygen and carbon dioxide at normal blood levels
  5. obesity hypoventilation syndrome, similar to sleep-hypoventilation syndrome but associated with obesity.

Related terminology includes

  1. Apneas, apnea events, complete pauses in breathing that last at least 10 seconds during sleep.
  2. Continuous positive airway pressure, CPAP, one of the most consistently effective treatments and the most common form of positive airway pressure (PAP), which
    1. provides slightly pressurized air during the breathing cycle, with the pressure adjusted so that it is just sufficient to keep the airway open
    2. keeps the airway open during sleep
    3. prevents the episodes of blocked breathing in persons with obstructive sleep apnea and other respiratory problems.
  3. Bilevel positive airway pressure, BiPAP or BPAP, which
    1. is similar to CPAP, but delivers higher air pressure when one breathes in (versus the same continual air pressure of CPAP)
    2. is most commonly used in the treatment of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)
  4. Automatic (auto-adjusting) positive airway pressure, APAP, which
    1. delivers varying amounts of positive airway pressure according to individual needs
    2. should only be prescribed after careful consideration
  5. Hypopneas, shallow breathing or partial reductions in breathing lasting at least 10 seconds during sleep.
  6. Hypoventilation, breathing fails to maintain normal levels of oxygen and carbon dioxide in the blood.
  7. Obstructive sleep apnea, episodes of blocked breathing during sleep that create apneas or apnea events or hypopneas which
    1. last 10–20 seconds or longer
    2. occur 20–30 times or more per hour
    3. occur 20–30 times or more per hour
    4. disrupt sleep three or more nights in a week.
  8. Obstructive sleep-disordered breathing, alternative terminology for sleep apnea.
  9. Sleep bruxism, nocturnal tooth grinding, a repetitious movement disorder
    1. characterized by grinding or clenching of the teeth during sleep
    2. associated with
      1. increased tendency to snore
      2. apneas or apnea events or hypopneas
      3. development of sleep apnea.
  10. Sleep-disordered breathing, comprises a wide range of sleep disorders of which sleep apnea is the most common.
  11. Sleep disorders, in addition to sleep apnea, include
    1. insomnia, difficulty falling or staying asleep
    2. narcolepsy, excessive daytime sleepiness, uncontrollable sleep attacks, and sudden loss of muscle tone, usually lasting up to half an hour
    3. restless legs syndrome, neurological disorder involving uncontrollable urges to move when at rest.
  12. Snoring, still widely regarded as merely a nuisance despite
    1. its recognition in the 1970s as an important clinical symptom of sleep apnea
    2. clear evidence that, in extreme instances, it may signal a life-threatening condition associated with significant chronic illness
    3. the diagnostic challenge that not all persons who snore have sleep apnea.
  13. Upper airway resistance syndrome, involves limitation of inspired air flow during sleep and daytime fatigue and sleepiness in the absence of clinical findings of obstructive sleep apnea; its existence as a distinct condition is subject to debate.

Overview of sleep apnea

Adapted from

Sleep apnea

  1. In the form of obstructive sleep apnea is a serious and potentially life-threatening medical condition that, especially when accompanied by obesity, is dangerous to health because it may deprive the brain and body of oxygen, with potentially damaging effects on the heart and other organs.
  2. Is often undiagnosed because of failure to recognize that its most common symptoms may signal a potentially serious medical disorder; these symptoms
    1. are snoring
    2. are falling asleep easily during the day or at inappropriate times
    3. may not be recognized for what they signal, or at all, by persons who experience them.
  3. Occurs as obstructive sleep apnea that
    1. is estimated to affect
      1. two to four percent of the middle-aged adult population aged 30 to 60 years, with males affected more than females and prevalence increasing with age
      2. up to 67% of elderly men and 54% of elderly women
      3. three percent of children, with highest occurrence between 2 and 5 years of age
    2. may be associated with asthma in adults
    3. in otherwise healthy preschool-age US children
      1. possibly affects up to one to three percent
      2. is caused chiefly by large adenoids and tonsils which, when the throat muscles relax during sleep, may block the airway
    4. may be associated with cognitive impairment in children.
  4. If untreated leads significant complications.
  5. Results from narrowing of the airway, leading to airway collapse and blockage, which
    1. involves collapse of soft tissue in the back of the throat that arises from
      1. relaxed throat muscles
      2. narrow airway
      3. large tongue
      4. fatty tissue in the throat
    2. by its extent determines the severity of the sleep apnea
      1. mild
      2. moderate
      3. severe, which may be life-threatening
    3. creates build-up of pressure within the airway
    4. causes vibration of the pharyngeal tissues resulting in snoring, the earliest sign of what may eventually become obstructive sleep apnea
  6. Is associated with risk factors such as
    1. inherited conditions, especially
      1. narrowing of the airway
      2. craniofacial factors predisposing to airway problems
    2. aging, in which
      1. the airways lose tone predisposing them to collapse
      2. snoring progresses to sleep apnea which may in time develop into obstructive sleep apnea
    3. increasing weight and obesity, which
      1. further narrow an already narrow airway
      2. in the abdominal area may affect breathing
    4. lifestyle behaviours, such as
      1. smoking
      2. alcohol consumption
      3. consumption of food close to bedtime.
  7. Is assessed by the
    1. number of apneas that occur during each hour of sleep
    2. quality of sleep and air flow through the nose and mouth during sleep.
  8. Is treated by some combination of
    1. oral appliances and other dental treatments
    2. weight loss
    3. positional therapy
    4. surgery
    5. continuous positive airway pressure devices, which though effective and often the preferred treatment, may create compliance problems because they
      1. are difficult to use
      2. are uncomfortable
      3. require and may not be accompanied by support with the necessary level of experience.

Comorbidity, complications and associated conditions

Comorbid conditions are those which co-exist with sleep apnea but which are not believed to be caused by it; complications and associated conditions are those that may have some link with it. Distinguishing among comorbid conditions, complications and associated conditions may be difficult in clinical practice.

For untreated sleep apnea, the following are usually regarded as complications or associated conditions, but they may also occur as comorbidities.

  1. Sleepiness, which
    1. requires attention because of its adverse consequences
    2. may be associated with factors other than untreated sleep disorders which also need to be identified and managed, such as
      1. sleep deprivation
      2. jet lag and night work
      3. alcohol consumption
      4. medications
      5. depression
      6. some illnesses.
  2. Cardiovascular disease, such as
    1. hypertension
    2. heart attack.
  3. Mental health conditions, such as
    1. feelings of depression
    2. memory problems
    3. difficulty with mental tasks.
  4. Morning headaches
  5. Impotence
  6. Accidents
  7. Early death

Oral health considerations

Adapted from

  1. As part of their role in preventive healthcare, dental hygienists may identify in a patient/client what appear to be possible early warning signals of obstructive sleep apnea; in that event they should promptly arrange or advise referral of the patient/client to the family physician.
  2. Recognition of obstructive sleep apnea
    1. Self-assessment questionnaires for patients/clients may assist the dental hygienist in deciding whether or not to refer a patient/client for medical advice about the possibility of obstructive sleep apnea; the referral would
      1. advance the general health of the patient/client through early identification of warning symptoms of obstructive sleep apnea and prompt referral to the family physician
      2. initiate the process whereby the patient/client is provided with a medical diagnosis which, if positive, would lead to
        1. medical treatment
        2. oral healthcare interventions, if appropriate, for the obstructive sleep apnea
      3. not delay the Procedures because these are not normally contraindicated in obstructive sleep apnea.
    2. Of the available self-assessment questions, the simplest is the STOP test
      1. which comprises four questions
        1. S: Do you snore loudly?
        2. T: Do you often feel tired, fatigued or sleepy during daytime?
        3. O: Has anyone observed you stop breathing during sleep?
        4. P: Do you have or are you being treated for high blood pressure?
      2. to which “Yes” answers to two or more of the four questions would
        1. indicate the need for medical referral unless the patient/client has recently been medically investigated for a sleep disorder
        2. would provide even stronger indication for medical referral when combined with other risk factors for obstructive sleep apnea, especially
          1. obesity
          2. age over 50
          3. large neck circumference
          4. male gender.2
  3. Sleep bruxism
    1. may be associated with sleep apnea because clenching of the teeth, which accompanies bruxism, appears to expand the airway and possibly relieve blockage
    2. has been the subject of recommendations for treatment with occlusal splints
      1. for which there is insufficient evidence in the literature to show that these can reduce sleep bruxism
      2. which have been found to aggravate respiratory problems in some persons, which underscores the importance of inquiry into sleep apnea and snoring and medical advice for patients/clients using them.
  4. Dental treatments, chiefly
    1. dental appliances, which
      1. are recommended for persons with mild-to-moderate obstructive sleep apnea for whom continuous positive airway pressure is
        1. not tolerable
        2. not appropriate
        3. not helpful
      2. include
        1. mandibular advancement devices, which
          1. are the most widely used dental device for sleep apnea
          2. resemble a sports mouth guard
          3. force the lower jaw forward and down slightly to keep the airway open
        2. tongue retraining devices, splints to hold the tongue in place to keep the airway as open as possible
      3. offer the possibility of
        1. significant reduction in apneas in mild-to-moderate apnea, particularly for persons who sleep on their backs or stomachs, but less so for those who sleep on their sides
        2. improvement in  airflow for persons with severe apnea
        3. improvement in sleep
        4. reduction in the frequency and loudness of snoring
        5. better compliance than continuous positive airway pressure
        6. when combined with double-arch night appliances, improved effectiveness in relieving sleep bruxism
      4. have disadvantages, such as
        1. generally lower effectiveness than continuous positive airway pressure
        2. worsening of apnea in some persons
        3. cost
        4. side effects, which may cause persons to discard them, including
          1. night pain
          2. dry lips
          3. tooth discomfort
        5. with long-term use in some persons, permanent changes in the position of the teeth or jaw, which calls for
          1. regular checkups
          2. device adjustments as required
    2. orthodontic treatment, rapid maxillary expansion, or transverse palatial expansion, a nonsurgical procedure, in which a screw device is temporarily attached to the upper teeth and tightened progressively to widen the two halves of the upper jaw in children in which the halves are still separate; this helps
      1. children with sleep apnea and a narrow upper jaw
      2. reduce nasal pressure and improve breathing.


Sourcing medications information

  1. Adverse effect database
  2. Specialized organizations
  3. Medications considerations
    All medications have potential side effects whether taken alone or in combination with other prescription medications, or as over-the-counter (OTC) or herbal medications.
  4. Information on herbals and supplements

Types of medications

Adapted from


Individual medications may be subject to important warnings, which

  1. change from time to time
  2. may affect the appropriateness, efficacy or safety of the Procedures
  3. are accessible via the links to the particular medications listed below or through the specialized organizations listed above
  4. through the links, should be viewed by dental hygienists in the course of their familiarizing themselves about a medication or combination of medications identified in the patient/client’s medical and medications history.


  1. is not generally used for treating obstructive sleep apnea because specific medications and natural remedies are lacking
  2. may be necessary for the treatment of complications, associated conditions,  and comorbidities of sleep apnea
  3. may be required to combat the daytime sleepiness that accompanies sleep apnea, but not as a replacement for other treatment methods
  4. may be required for relief of nasal congestion or other transient conditions
  5. of a sedative nature may aggravate sleep apnea
  6. if used should always be accompanied by a sleep-improvement regime
  7. may include breathing stimulation medications such as acetazolamide for central sleep apnea.

Specific medications include

  1. for daytime sleepiness, one particular type, used in the treatment of narcolepsy, that is
    1. also approved for combating excessive daytime sleepiness
    2. used in conjunction with continuous positive airway pressure or other treatment for the sleep apnea
      modafinil (Alertec®, Provogil®)
  2. restless legs syndrome
  3. insomnia
  4. short-term insomnia
  5. chronic insomnia
  6. difficulty falling asleep
    • ramelteon (Rozerem®) resembles the mode of action of melatonin, a natural substance in the brain that is needed for sleep

Side effects of medications

See the links to the specific medications listed above.


The medical  and medications history-taking should

  1. Focus on screening the patient/client prior to treatment decision relative to
    1. key symptoms
    2. medications considerations
    3. contraindications
    4. complications
    5. comorbidities
    6. associated conditions.
  2. Explore the need for advice from the appropriate primary care provider(s).
  3. Inquire about
    1. symptoms indicative of unrecognized sleep apnea
    2. the patient/client’s understanding and acceptance of the need for oral healthcare
    3. medications considerations, including over-the-counter medications, herbals and supplements
    4. problems with previous dental/dental hygiene care
    5. problems with infections generally and specifically associated with dental/dental hygiene care
    6. how the patient/client’s state of health is at this moment
    7. how the patient/client’s current symptoms relate to
      1. oral health
      2. health generally
      3. recent changes in the patient/client’s condition.


Identifying and contacting the most appropriate healthcare provider(s) from whom to obtain medical or other advice pertinent to a particular patient/client

  1. record the name of the physician/primary care provider most closely associated with the patient/client’s healthcare, and the telephone number
  2. obtain from the patient/client or parent/guardian written, informed consent to contact the identified physician/primary healthcare provider
  3. use a consent/medical consultation form, and be prepared to securely send the form to the provider
  4. include on the form a standardized statement of the Procedures proposed, with a request for advice on proceeding or not at the particular time, and any precautions to be observed.


Infection Control

Dental hygienists are required to keep their practices current with infection control policies and procedures, especially in relation to

  1. the CDHO’s Infection Prevention and Control Guidelines (2022)
  2. relevant occupational health and safety legislative requirements
  3. relevant public health legislative requirements
  4. Best practices or other protocols specific to the medical condition of the patient/client.


In an otherwise healthy patient/client whose sleep apnea has been recognized and investigated, there is no contraindication to the Procedures. A medical consultation or referral may be appropriate if the patient/client has

  1. Symptoms or signs that may signal unrecognized sleep apnea.
  2. One or more complications, associated conditions or comorbidities of sleep apnea.
  3. Recently changed medications, under medical advice or otherwise.
  4. Recently experienced changes in his/her medical condition.


Dental hygienists are required to initiate emergency protocols as required by the College of Dental Hygienists of Ontario’s Standards of Practice, and as appropriate for the condition of the patient/client.

First-aid provisions and responses as required for current certification in first aid.


Subject to Ontario Regulation 9/08 Part III.1, Records, in particular S 12.1 (1) and (2)

For a patient/client with a history of sleep apnea, the dental hygienist should specifically record

  1. A summary of the medical and medications history.
  2. Any advice received from the physician/primary care provider relative to the patient/client’s condition.
  3. The decision made by the dental hygienist, with reasons.
  4. Compliance with the precautions required.
  5. All Procedure(s) used.
  6. Any advice given to the patient/client.


The patient/client is urged to alert any healthcare professional who proposes any intervention or test that he or she has a history of sleep apnea.

As appropriate, discuss

  1. The importance of medical advice for sleep apnea.
  2. The importance of a good diet in the maintenance of oral health.
  3. The need for regular oral health examinations and preventive oral healthcare.
  4. Home oral hygiene including information about choice of toothpaste, tooth-brushing devices, dental flossing, mouth rinses and saliva control.
  5. Medication side effects such as dry mouth, and recommend treatment.
  6. Scheduling and duration of appointments for patients/clients with chronic or debilitating conditions.
  7. Comfort level while reclining, and stress and anxiety related to the Procedures.
  8. Mouth ulcers and other conditions of the mouth relating to sleep apnea, comorbidities, medications or diet.
  9. Pain management.



  1. Promotion of health through oral hygiene by identification in adults and children of what appear to be warning signals of obstructive sleep apnea and promptly arranging or recommending referral of the patient/client to the family physician.
  2. Reduction of the risks associated with sleep apnea by
    1. giving appropriate advice and encouragement
    2. using appropriate techniques of communication
    3. providing advice on scheduling and duration of appointments.
  3. Reduction of risk of oral health needs being unmet.


  1. Causing harm through inappropriate advice to patients/clients or the parents or guardians affected by sleep apnea, recognized or not.
  2. Performing the Procedures at an inappropriate time, such as
    1. in the presence of complications, associated conditions or comorbidities for which prior medical advice is required
    2. in the presence of acute oral infection without prior medical advice.
  3. Disturbing the normal dietary and medications routine of a person with sleep apnea.
  4. Inappropriate management of pain or medication.






2018-09-13; 2023-05-17


College of Dental Hygienists of Ontario, regulatory body
Greyhead Associates, medical information service specialists


College of Dental Hygienists of Ontario


College of Dental Hygienists of Ontario, Practice Advisors


Dr Gordon Atherley
O StJ , MB ChB, DIH, MD, MFCM (Royal College of Physicians, UK), FFOM (Royal College of Physicians, UK), FACOM (American College of Occupational Medicine), LLD (hc), FRSA

Dr Kevin Glasgow

Lisa Taylor

Giulia Galloro

Carolle Lepage


The College of Dental Hygienists of Ontario gratefully acknowledges the Template of Guideline Attributes, on which this advisory is modelled, of The National Guideline Clearinghouse™ (NGC), sponsored by the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ), U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Denise Lalande
Final layout and proofreading

© 2010, 2018, 2023 College of Dental Hygienists of Ontario


1 Persons includes young persons and children
2 The increasingly used STOP-Bang questionnaire augments STOP with the addition of four other parameters: “body mass index greater than 35 kg/m2”, “age older than 50”, “neck size large” (is your shirt collar 40 cm or larger), and “gender = male”.