A CPAP machine provides continuous air pressure to keep the airways open during sleep. Doctors may prescribe CPAP therapy to people who experience symptoms of sleep apnea.

A continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) machine is a breathing device with a mask that people place over the nose or mouth.

A tube connects the device’s motor, which provides the air pressure, to the mask and delivers a steady stream of airflow to keep the airways open and prevent breathing lapses.

CPAP machines can help treat sleep apnea, a condition in which breathing temporarily stops during sleep.

According to the American Academy of Sleep Medicine (AASM), using a CPAP machine may also help reduce the risk of various issues that can arise from sleep apnea, including poor sleep quality, daytime sleepiness, and snoring.

This article will explain how a CPAP machine works to treat sleep apnea, the different types available, how a person can get a CPAP machine, and the potential side effects of using one.

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Rather than starting to work when a person stops breathing, a CPAP machine prevents lapses in breathing from the time a person goes to sleep.

The machine provides a continuous flow of air to prevent any pauses in a person’s breathing. It delivers mild air pressure to keep the airways open during sleep.

Most CPAP machines have a ramp, or timed pressure, setting. The machine begins delivering air pressure at a low level, which may help a person fall asleep more comfortably.

As a person sleeps, the machine gradually increases the air pressure to the correct level to prevent sleep apnea. This continuous airflow keeps the airways open and prevents any pauses in breathing.

Another type of CPAP machine that a person may use is an autotitrating CPAP machine. Instead of providing a set continuous air pressure throughout the night, it delivers different air pressures, varying between low and high pressure settings.

Autotitrating CPAP machines use pressure sensors and computer algorithms to work out the correct pressure a person needs throughout the night to prevent lapses in breathing.

Types of CPAP machine masks

The AASM highlights three types of CPAP masks that people can wear:

  • Nasal mask: This CPAP mask goes over the nose only.
  • Nasal pillow mask: With a nasal pillow mask, a person inserts silicone tubes into their nose to supply airflow. This may suit people who do not want to wear a mask over the face or nose.
  • Full face mask: This mask covers the mouth and may sit over or underneath the nose. This mask may suit people who cannot breathe well through the nose alone, such as those with chronic allergies or a deviated septum.

If people are still experiencing symptoms of sleep apnea or unwanted side effects from a CPAP machine, a doctor may suggest a different mask or adjust the pressure and timing settings on the machine.

They may also make other adjustments to improve a person’s comfort and management of sleep apnea.

The National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI) suggests that people contact a doctor if they experience:

  • air leaks from the mask
  • an ill-fitting mask
  • discomfort
  • continued symptoms of sleep apnea
  • difficulty falling or staying asleep
  • dry eyes or mouth
  • a stuffy or runny nose

If people have any symptoms of sleep apnea, they can visit a doctor for a diagnosis and treatment plan, which may include a prescription for a CPAP machine.

People who receive a regular CPAP machine will undergo a monitoring and fitting procedure called a titration study to ensure that the machine is set to the right pressure setting.

People who receive an autotitrating CPAP machine generally do not undergo a titration study. Instead, doctors prescribe an autotitrating CPAP set at pressure parameters.

According to the NHLBI, if a doctor prescribes CPAP therapy to treat sleep apnea, health insurance providers will usually provide people with a CPAP machine and mask.

A doctor and an insurance provider may check the data card on the CPAP machine to ensure that people are using the machine as necessary. Doctors can also check the data card to observe how well managed a person’s sleep apnea is.

Potential complications of untreated sleep apnea

If people do not receive treatment, sleep apnea can cause some serious potential complications, as highlighted by the American Lung Association. These include:

  • high blood pressure
  • diabetes
  • stroke
  • heart disease
  • early death

If a person experiences the symptoms of sleep apnea, they should consult a healthcare professional about their treatment options. Symptoms of sleep apnea include:

A partner may also notice that a person with sleep apnea snores loudly, gasps for air when sleeping, and experiences breathing that starts and stops during sleep.

Here are some of the most frequently asked questions about CPAP machines for sleep apnea.

What are the side effects of using a CPAP machine?

According to the NHLBI, a CPAP machine may cause the following side effects:

  • dry mouth
  • dry eyes
  • congestion
  • runny nose
  • irritation from mask straps
  • nosebleeds

If a CPAP machine feels uncomfortable, leaks air, or causes side effects, people may wish to talk with a doctor, who may be able to adjust the settings or suggest another type of device or mask.

The AASM suggests that using a humidifier with a CPAP machine or using a saline nasal spray may help reduce unwanted symptoms. Many CPAP machines now come with built-in humidifiers to significantly reduce or eliminate the above potential side effects.

Is a CPAP machine safe?

A CPAP machine is generally safe to use and may help prevent serious complications of sleep apnea, such as heart disease and stroke.

People can avoid irritation to the skin by cleaning the mask and tubing regularly and replacing any parts as necessary.

In some cases, using a CPAP machine may cause bloating. If people have any bloating or stomach discomfort when using a CPAP machine, they should stop using the machine and contact a doctor.

When should a person stop using a CPAP machine?

People may need to stop using a CPAP machine and contact a doctor if they have any bloating or stomach discomfort when using the device.

Generally, it is important to keep using a CPAP machine as a doctor advises in order to treat sleep apnea and prevent complications.

A CPAP machine is a breathing device that can help treat sleep apnea. Like other PAP therapies, it provides a constant stream of air through a mask to keep a person’s airways open during sleep.

This machine can also help prevent potential complications from sleep apnea.