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CPAP for Sleep Apnea

Updated on August 2, 2016

CPAP stands for Continuous Positive Airways Pressure. It’s a treatment for moderate to severe sleep apnea and can really benefit the symptoms of tiredness and lack of concentration you feel because of it. It can also reduce the physical dangers sleep apnea causes the body, such as high blood pressure.

People with mild sleep apnea may find CPAP to be useful if they have symptoms that affect their quality of life.

If you need CPAP therapy your specialist will talk to you in detail and work with you to make sure it is a successful treatment for you.

For more on sleep apnea, getting better sleep so that you wake feeling refreshed, look at

How does CPAP work?

When you have sleep apnea the back of the throat/upper airway collapses. CPAP works by using a constant flow of pressurised air to keep the airway open. It does this via a machine that pressurises the air and a tight-fitting nasal mask with straps and tubing to deliver it. An example is in the picture here.

People who use CPAP say it’s similar to the sensation of putting your head out of a car window when it’s travelling at speed (obviously when you’re a passenger and not the driver!).

Is CPAP safe?

Yes, it is. CPAP is used for adults, children and preterm babies.

Adults with heart failure, COPD, respiratory failure and sleep apnea can all use it to help their symptoms. It’s not a cure but a long term treatment.

Similarly children and adults with small lung volumes and muscle weakness find it useful.

And in some preterm babies it can reduce the need for steroids and tube ventilation when their lungs are immature, and increases their chances of survival.

What are the alternatives?

A similar type of treatment called BIPAP (Bilevel Positive Airways Pressure) does the same sort of thing but the pressure changes as you breathe in and out.

Your specialist will guide you as to which is better for you.

There are some sleep apnea mouthpiecesthat can help hold the jaw and soft palate in the correct position, but there are generally used for mild sleep apnea.

For people who can’t tolerate CPAP or BIPAP, or if the treatment doesn’t work, surgery for sleep apnea may be considered.

What should I expect from CPAP?

The number 1 rule for starting CPAP is to take it slowly and get used to it. Expect the first few nights to be difficult – many people report not sleeping well or not sleeping at all. This will get easier.

It needs to be used every time you sleep, including naps.

The mask fits tightly over the nose, using straps that go round the head. This can make some people feel claustrophobic. To get over this, practise with it while you’re awake. Start by:

  1. Holding the mask to your face without the straps or tubing etc. Do this for about 20 minutes and see how you feel.
  2. When you’re comfortable with this, wear the mask with the straps and keep it on for an hour or so. You may want to build this time if you’re not comfortable.
  3. Next try holding the mask to your face without the straps but with the air tubing attached to the machine and the air flowing at a low pressure. CPAP devices have a ‘ramp’ feature that adjusts the air pressure gradually as you get used to it.
  4. Finally, when you’re ready, use the machine, tubing and mask with the straps, turn it on to a low pressure, gradually increasing it as you get used to the sensation.
  5. When you feel confident with this, try sleeping with it on.

What about the noise?

Modern CPAP machines are compact enough to fit on a bedside cabinet, weigh about 5lbs and are much quieter than you might imagine. They emit a soothing, pulsing sound that shouldn’t disturb your sleep.

More about sleep apnea

What are the benefits of CPAP?

People who successfully use CPAP say they:

  • Better concentration and memory
  • Feel more alert and awake during the day
  • Are more productive at work
  • Suffer less depression and have a better mood
  • Have better sleep patterns
  • Have partners who are happier because they aren’t snoring!


CPAP takes a bit of getting used to and needs to be worn whenever you are sleeping. It’s a treatment for life rather than a cure for sleep apnea but users report a good improvement to their symptoms of daytime sleepiness etc.

And it benefits health by bringing blood pressure down/preventing high blood pressure and the health dangers associated with that.


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