CPAP Machines for Sleep Apnea: How It Works

A CPAP machine is a common treatment for sleep apnea. Sleep apnea makes breathing stop or pause during sleep because the throat or airways collapse briefly.

The CPAP machine sends a constant flow of air into your nose and mouth while you sleep. This keeps your airways open and helps you breathe normally.

We’ll discuss how the CPAP machine works, its advantages and disadvantages, and other sleep apnea treatments.

What is a CPAP Machine?

CPAP Machines for Sleep Apnea

A CPAP machine is a device used to treat sleep apnea and other breathing issues. Sleep apnea causes shallow breaths or pauses in breathing during sleep, leading to snoring, daytime fatigue, and other health problems.

CPAP therapy involves using the machine to keep the airway open by delivering a continuous stream of air. This helps reduce episodes of abnormal breathing, improving sleep quality and overall health.

Components of CPAP Machines

CPAP machines typically include these parts:

  1. Mask: Covers the nose or nose and mouth to deliver air without leakage.
  2. Mask Straps: Keep the mask securely in place during sleep.
  3. Tubing: Connects the mask to the machine’s motor, delivering air to the airway.
  4. Motor: Blows air into the tubing. Most machines need to be plugged in, but some run on batteries. The motor may also include an air filter and sometimes a heated humidifier.

How Does A CPAP Work?

CPAP machines work by delivering pressurized air through a mask to keep the airway open during sleep. The air, taken from the room, is filtered and pressurized according to prescribed settings.

This airflow acts as a cushion, preventing the throat from collapsing and reducing snoring. It can also alleviate nasal swelling and clear mucus, improving breathing and sleep quality.

Automatic CPAP devices were made to increase pressure when there’s a blockage or snoring and decrease it when the person is awake or not blocked. This simplifies pressure adjustments, saving time and money.

How to Use a CPAP Machine

  1. Fill the humidifier chamber with distilled water. Tap water can leave residue.
  2. Consider using the ramp feature to start at a lower pressure, gradually increasing to prescribed pressure.
  3. Position the mask by sliding the headgear over the back of your head.
  4. Attach the headgear to the mask frame.
  5. Turn on the machine.

Does CPAP Cure Sleep Apnea?

CPAP improves sleep apnea by keeping the airway open with a constant airflow during sleep. While in use, it can alleviate any symptoms associated with sleep apnea. 

However, it’s not a permanent cure. Once you stop using it, all your conditions will return. Similar to glasses improving vision only when worn, CPAP only helps if used every night.

Because CPAP can reduce airway swelling, some may still experience temporary benefits after stopping it. However, you can expect the symptoms to return sooner or later.

Is a CPAP Machine Safe? Any Side Effects?

CPAP machines are generally safe and can prevent serious complications of sleep apnea such as heart disease and stroke. However, some people may experience bloating or stomach discomfort. Other possible side effects might include

  • Dry mouth
  • Dry eyes
  • Congestion
  • Runny nose
  • Irritation from mask straps
  • Nosebleeds

If you happen to experience any of the above symptoms, you should consult a doctor who can can adjust settings or recommend alternative devices or masks. If your symptom is mild, you might consider using a humidifier or saline nasal spray to minimize the side effects. Many CPAP machines now include built-in humidifiers.

To prevent skin irritation, remember to clean the CPAP machine regularly and replace any malfunctioning parts.

Is a CPAP Machine Forever?

For most people with sleep apnea, CPAP is the most effective treatment available. While it may seem like a hassle, using CPAP regularly, i.e. at least four hours per night, often leads to significant benefits for people with obstructive sleep apnea (OSA).

Regular CPAP use helps maintain open airways during sleep, thereby reducing or eliminating the frequent awakenings associated with sleep apnea. You’ll get better sleep at night and wake up feeling more refreshed.

However, you may not need to use CPAP forever. Some underlying causes of sleep apnea, like being overweight or temporary conditions such as allergies or pregnancy, can be addressed. For example, if you’re overweight, you might adopt a healthier lifestyle to shed some pounds.

If you find CPAP bothersome, consult your doctor to explore alternatives or address any reversible factors contributing to your sleep apnea.

When Should a Person Stop Using a CPAP machine?

Stop using a CPAP machine and consult a doctor if you experience bloating or stomach discomfort while using it.

However, if there is no side effect, you should continue using the machine as directed by a doctor to effectively treat sleep apnea and prevent complications.

How to Know if You May Need a CPAP Machine

If you snore, gasp/choked, feel excessively sleepy during the day, have brain fog, headaches, or irritability, you might have obstructive sleep apnea (OSA). This condition, where breathing stops repeatedly during sleep, is common, especially in men. Factors like being overweight, having a large neck, smoking, or having small airways can increase the risk.

If you suspect OSA, consult your doctor. They can recommend CPAP therapy, a treatment where a machine helps keep your airways open during sleep.

For mild cases, you may consider using some anti-snoring devices or anti-snoring mouthpieces.

What Are the Differences Between CPAP, BiPAP, and APAP Machines?

CPAP, BiPAP, and APAP machines are all used to treat sleep apnea, but they work differently:

  1. CPAP (Continuous Positive Airway Pressure): Stays at one fixed pressure level (between 4-20) all the time. Doesn’t adjust to your changing needs during the night.

  2. BiPAP (BiLevel Positive Airway Pressure): Has two pressure settings—one for inhale and one for exhale (between 4-25). Useful for conditions like Central Sleep Apnea and COPD. Can be set above 20 if needed.

  3. APAP (Automatic Positive Airway Pressure): Adjusts pressure automatically, breath by breath, within the range of 4-20. Adapts to your breathing needs during the night, providing more flexibility than CPAP. 

Do You Need a Prescription for a CPAP Machine?

Yes, you need a prescription for a CPAP machine. It’s a Class II Medical Device, so federal and state laws require a doctor’s prescription before you can buy one.

Other examples include BiPAP machines, APAP machines, Oxygen Concentrators, and CPAP masks. You can check out the FDA resource on device classification and regulation for more info.

Tips for Avoiding Common Issues With CPAP Devices

Here are some tips for avoiding common issues with CPAP devices:

  1. Compatibility: Make sure all components and accessories are compatible, especially if purchased from different manufacturers. Check that the mask style works with your machine and hose.

  2. Use a humidifier: CPAP machines can cause dry mouth and nasal symptoms. Use a CPAP-compatible humidifier to maintain proper moisture levels and prevent discomfort.

  3. Get used to wearing the mask: It takes time to get used to wearing a CPAP mask. Choose a mask style that fits comfortably and consider CPAP-compatible pillows for side and stomach sleepers.

  4. Proper fit: A poorly fitting mask or broken hose connections can affect therapy effectiveness. Check all connections are secure and ensure the mask fits your face properly before use.

How to Clean the CPAP machine?

To clean your CPAP machine:

  1. Disassemble: Unplug the device. Take off the mask, headgear, tubing, and water chamber.

  2. Soak: In warm, soapy water, soak the tubing, mask, and headgear for 30 minutes. Rinse afterward.

  3. Air dry: Let all the parts air dry completely.

  4. Clean external surface: Use a damp cloth to wipe down the outside of the machine.

  5. Reassemble: Put everything back together once it’s dry. Test the device to ensure it’s working.

  6. Clean humidifier: Wash it weekly with mild soap and hot water. Only use distilled water in the humidifier.

Remember: Follow the manufacturer’s instructions and don’t use unapproved cleaning devices.

Alternatives to CPAP Therapy

Here are some popular options:

  1. Oral Appliances: These devices, made by dentists, keep your tongue in place to prevent it from blocking your airway during sleep. They work for mild sleep apnea but may not help if your airway is narrow or has too much soft tissue.

  2. Surgery: Rarely used, surgery can remove excess tissues or improve airway geometry as a last resort treatment.

  3. Hypoglossal Nerve Stimulator: This involves implanting a stimulator on the hypoglossal nerve to control tongue movement. It’s for severe cases and requires invasive surgery.

  4. Changing Sleep Positions: Sleeping on your side can improve airflow, reducing the need for CPAP. You may choose a CPAP pillow to help you maintain your side-sleeping position. 


1. How much do CPAP machines cost?

CPAP machines typically range from $500 to $1,000 or more. Additional features like a heated humidifier can increase the cost.

2. Does Medicare cover CPAP machines?

Medicare may cover some of the cost if you’re diagnosed with obstructive sleep apnea, your doctor and CPAP supplier are enrolled in Medicare. Initially, they may cover a three-month trial, with follow-up visits required for continued coverage. You may still have to pay 20% out-of-pocket.

3. How can I get a CPAP machine?

First, see a doctor to determine if CPAP therapy is suitable. Your doctor may refer you to a sleep specialist for further evaluation, including a sleep study if needed. If CPAP therapy is recommended, your specialist or doctor will guide you on selecting and purchasing a CPAP machine.

4. How do CPAP machines detect breathing patterns?

Fixed-air CPAP machines release air at a constant pressure, regardless of breathing patterns. APAP machines use sensors to detect changes in breathing and adjust airflow. They can estimate abnormal breathing events per night and detect mask leaks.

Need professional help to diagnose and address your sleep problems? Schedule an online consultation with sleep specialist Dr. John Williams.

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