Continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) for obstructive sleep apnea

Treatment Overview

Continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) is a machine that helps a person who has obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) breathe more easily during sleep. A CPAP machine increases air pressure in your throat so that your airway does not collapse when you breathe in. Your using CPAP may also help your bed partner sleep better.

You use CPAP at home every night while you sleep. The CPAP machine has a mask that either covers your nose and mouth, a mask that covers your nose only (nasal continuous positive airway pressure, or NCPAP), or prongs that fit into your nose. The type of mask that fits over just the nose is used most frequently.

You may want to try similar machines that have automatically adjustable air pressure or air pressures that are different when you breathe in than when you breathe out.

What To Expect After Treatment

It may take time for you to become comfortable with using CPAP. If you cannot get used to it, talk to your doctor. You might be able to try another type of mask or make other adjustments.


Why It Is Done

CPAP is the most effective nonsurgical treatment for obstructive sleep apnea. It is the first treatment choice and the most widely used.

  • Doctors use CPAP to treat people who have moderate to severe sleep apnea.
  • CPAP is the treatment of choice for people who have sleep apnea and coronary artery disease (CAD) or heart failure.
  • Doctors also use CPAP to treat mixed sleep apnea.

How Well It Works

Overall, CPAP is effective for moderate and severe obstructive sleep apnea:

  • Research shows that continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) decreases daytime sleepiness, especially in those with moderate to severe sleep apnea. However, CPAP may not be as effective for people who have mild sleep apnea.
  • Two small studies show that in people who have moderate to severe sleep apnea, CPAP lowers blood pressure during both the day and the night.


Problems that may occur with CPAP include:

  • Nightmares and excessive dreaming during early use.
  • Dry nose, nosebleeds, and sore throat.
  • Nasal congestion, runny nose, and sneezing.
  • Irritation of the eyes and the skin on the face.
  • Abdominal bloating.
  • Headaches.
  • Leaks around the mask because it does not fit properly.

Rare complications of CPAP may include:

  • Bacterial infection in the lining around the brain and spinal cord (meningitis).
  • Severe nosebleeds.

You can expect mild discomfort in the morning when you first start using CPAP. Talk with your doctor if you do not feel comfortable after a few days.

Relieving side effects

You may be able to limit or stop some of the side effects:

  • Your doctor may be able to adjust your CPAP to reduce or eliminate problems.
  • Be sure the mask or nasal prongs fit you properly. Air should not leak around the mask.
  • Use a humidifier or a corticosteroid nasal spray medication to reduce nasal irritation and drainage.
  • Use a device that gradually increases the amount of pressure during the night to reduce discomfort caused by too much pressure in your nose. If this is not helpful, consider trying a bilevel positive airway pressure machine (BiPAP), which uses different air pressure when you breathe in than when you breathe out. BiPAP machines are more expensive than CPAP machines.
  • If your nose is runny or congested, talk with your doctor about using decongestants or corticosteroid nasal spray medications.

What To Think About

When you are using CPAP, you need to see your doctor or sleep specialist regularly and perhaps have additional sleep studies to adjust the CPAP machine to proper pressures and check to see whether the treatment is working.

The machines are expensive.

The most common problem with CPAP is that people do not use the machine every night, or they take off the mask during the night because it becomes uncomfortable. Even one night of not using the machine can make you sleepy the next day.

You might not use the machine consistently or stop using it because:

  • You don't like wearing a mask at night because of nasal discomfort.
  • The machine is noisy.
  • It may discourage intimacy with your sleeping partner, even though you use the machine only while you are sleeping.

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