CPAP stands for continuous positive airway pressure. CPAP pumps air under pressure into the airway of the lungs, keeping the windpipe open during sleep. The forced air delivered by CPAP prevents episodes of airway collapse that block the breathing in people with obstructive sleep apnea and other breathing problems.
It is sometimes called nasal continuous positive airflow pressure (nCPAP).
CPAP can successfully treat most people with obstructive sleep apnea. It is safe and works well for people of all ages, including children. If you only have mild sleep apnea and do not feel very sleepy during the day, you may not need it.
After using CPAP regularly, you may notice:
Better concentration and memory
Feeling more alert and less sleepy during the day
Improved sleep for your bed partner
Being more productive at work
Less anxiety and depression and a better mood
Normal sleep patterns
Lower blood pressure (in people with high blood pressure)
CPAP works by keeping a steady pressure of forced air in your airway to keep it open. Other devices work in slightly different ways to treat sleep apnea:
Autotitrating positive airway pressure (APAP) changes pressure throughout the night based on your breathing patterns.
Bilevel positive airway pressure (BiPAP) has a higher pressure when you breathe in and lower pressure when you breathe out.
BiPAP is useful for children and adults who have:
Airways that collapse while sleeping, making it hard to breathe freely
Decreased air exchange in the lung
Muscle weakness that makes it difficult to breathe, due to conditions such as muscular dystrophy
CPAP or BiPAP may also be used by people who have:
You wear a mask over your nose or nose and mouth while you sleep.
The mask is connected by a hose to a small machine that sits at the side of your bed.
The machine pumps air under pressure through the hose and mask and into your airway while you sleep. This helps keep your airway open.
You may start to use CPAP while you are in the sleep center for the night.
Your health care provider will help choose the mask that fits you best.
They will adjust the settings on the machine while you are asleep.
The settings will be adjusted based on the severity of your sleep apnea.
If you are using CPAP but your symptoms do not improve, the settings on the machine may need to be changed. Your provider may teach you how to adjust the CPAP at home. Or, you may need to go to the sleep center to have it adjusted.
GETTING USED TO THE DEVICE
It can take time to get used to using a CPAP device. The first few nights of CPAP therapy are often the hardest. You may not sleep well at the start of treatment.
If you are having problems, you may be tempted not to use CPAP for the whole night. But, you will get used to it more quickly if you use the machine for the entire night.
When using CPAP for the first time, you may have:
A feeling of being closed in (claustrophobia)
Chest muscle discomfort, which usually goes away after awhile
Redness and sores over the bridge of your nose
Runny or stuffed-up nose
Sore or dry mouth
Upper respiratory infections
Many of these problems can be helped or prevented.
Ask your doctor or therapist about using a mask that is lightweight and cushioned. Some masks are used only around or inside the nostrils.
Make sure the mask fits correctly so that it does not leak air. It should not be too tight or too loose.
Try nasal salt water sprays for a stuffed nose.
Use a humidifier to help with dry skin or nasal passages.
Keep your CPAP equipment clean.
Place your CPAP machine underneath your bed to limit noise.
Most machines are quiet, but if you notice sounds that make it hard to sleep, tell your doctor or therapist.
Your doctor or therapist can lower the pressure on the CPAP machine and then increase it again at a slow pace. Some new machines can automatically adjust to the pressure that is needed.
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Morgenthaler TI, Aurora RN, Brown T, et al. Practice parameters for the use of autotitrating continuous positive airway pressure devices for titrating pressures and treating adult patients with obstructive sleep apnea syndrome: An Update for 2007. An American Academy of Sleep Medicine Report. Sleep. 2008;31:141-7. PMID 18220088 www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18220088.
Tomfohr LM, Ancoli-Israel S, Loredo JS, Dimsdale JE. Effects of continuous positive airway pressure on fatigue and sleepiness in patients with obstructive sleep apnea: data from a randomized controlled trial. Sleep. 2011;34:121-6. PMID 21203367 www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21203367.
Andrew Schriber, MD, FCCP, Specialist in Pulmonary, Critical Care, and Sleep Medicine, Virtua Memorial Hospital, Mount Holly, NJ. Review provided by VeriMed Healthcare Network. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Isla Ogilvie, PhD, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.