Continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP)

Continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) is a treatment for obstructive sleep apnoea.

Key points about CPAP

  1. Continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) is a safe and effective treatment for obstructive sleep apnoea. 
  2. A CPAP machine holds your airway open by gently blowing air into your breathing passages at a set pressure.
  3. Treating obstructive sleep apnoea leads to better quality sleep.
  4. This can improve how well you function in the day.

What is continuous positive airway pressure?

Continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) is a treatment for obstructive sleep apnoea. 

Normally when you go to sleep, your throat muscles hold your airway open. If you have sleep apnoea, your throat muscles relax too much when you are asleep. This makes your airways narrow and collapse, and you stop breathing for a moment, until your brain wakes you up to begin breathing again. Read more about obstructive sleep apnoea
 
A CPAP machine holds your airway open by gently blowing air into your breathing passages (nose, throat and ‘airways’) at a set pressure. This prevents the pauses in your breathing and helps you sleep better. A doctor or nurse will set the pressure level for you.

The air is delivered through a mask. Masks come in different shapes and sizes. They may just cover your nose or both your nose and mouth. 

What are the forms of CPAP?

There are 2 forms of CPAP:

  • fixed CPAP which delivers constant pressure throughout the night
  • auto-titrating CPAP devices which adjust the pressure delivery as you breathe.

Both forms of CPAP have been shown to effectively treat sleep apnoea

What are the benefits of CPAP?

CPAP is a safe and effective treatment for people with sleep apnoea. You should sleep better after using it. Treatment often improves how well you function in the day, with better concentration and improved behaviour in children

To get the best benefit, you need to use CPAP every night, for the whole time you are asleep.

CPAP is not a cure and sleep apnoea will return if you stop using CPAP or don't use it correctly. 

How long does CPAP take to work?

CPAP will stop your sleep apnoea straight away. You might start to feel better on the day after your first night of using it effectively. But some people find it takes a bit longer.

It might take some time for both you and your partner to get used to CPAP. At first, you might not be able to use it for the whole night. This is common. It's better to build up use slowly than to try very hard too early and give up. Be patient with yourself and with the device. 

What are the side effects of CPAP?

CPAP treatment is a very safe treatment but it may cause discomfort in some people, such as a dry or stuffy nose, irritation of the skin on your face, and sore eyes due to air leaking around the mask.

These side effects can usually be prevented or controlled by simple measures like using a nasal spray or adjusting the size or fit of the mask. 

Learn more

Continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) Australasian Sleep Health Foundation
CPAP: making it work for you Australasian Sleep Health Foundation
Sleep Apnoea Association of New Zealand 

References

  1. Continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) KidsHealth, NZ, 2018
  2. Obstructive sleep apnoea in adults BPAC, NZ, 2012

Reviewed by

Dr Helen Kenealy is a geriatrician and general physician working at Counties Manukau DHB. She has a broad range of interests and has worked in a variety of settings including inpatient rehabilitation, orthgeriatrics and community geriatrics.
Credits: Health Navigator Editorial Team. Reviewed By: Dr Helen Kenealy, geriatrician and general physician, Counties Manukau DHB Last reviewed: 22 Feb 2021