What Is a CPAP Machine?

Continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) machines are often used to treat sleep apnea, a condition in which a person’s breathing intermittently stops while sleeping. We’ll explain what a CPAP machine is and how it can be helpful for people experiencing sleep apnea.

What Is a CPAP Machine?

A CPAP machine helps regulate breathing by supplying pressurized air through a hose and mask. The steady stream of oxygen helps prevent a person’s airway from becoming collapsed or blocked, which is what causes interruptions in breathing.

Most CPAP machines use the following components:

  • Motorized Fan: The fan draws in air, which is then purified and pressurized based on the machine’s calibration.
  • Filter: A filter helps trap dust, allergens, and other contaminants before the air reaches the user.
  • Hose: Typically made from flexible, corrugated plastic, the hose allows air to travel from the machine to the sleeper.
  • Mask: The user wears a mask that is connected to the machine by the hose. Depending on the type, the mask seals the nostrils or mouth, or both, so that pressurized air can be received by the sleeper.
  • Headgear with Adjustable Straps: This component allows the mask to fit securely on the face, minimizing the risk of air leaks. Users can customize the fit of the mask with adjustable straps.
  • Humidifier (optional): Some models use a water tank to humidify the air, which can minimize nosebleeds, sore throats, and other symptoms related to dry nasal passages.

Types of CPAP Masks

There are three common types of CPAP masks, which are purchased separately from a CPAP machine.

  • Full-Face Mask: This type usually covers the entire nose and mouth. Some newer models rest below the nose.
  • Nasal Masks: The most common type of CPAP mask, its triangular-shaped design fits over the nose only and is less bulky than a full-face design.
  • Nasal Pillow Masks: The most lightweight of all mask types, a sealed cushion is inserted into the nostrils so that there is minimal contact with the face.

Choosing the right face mask style for your sleep position can positively influence the success of CPAP therapy. For example, while full-face masks are often suitable for back sleepers, people who sleep on their side or stomach may prefer the lower profile of nasal pillow masks.

What Is a CPAP Machine Used For?

A CPAP machine is a common treatment for obstructive sleep apnea (OSA), which occurs when a sleeper stops breathing for brief intervals because their airway is blocked. OSA is the most common type of sleep apnea.

OSA can prevent a person from getting quality rest and is linked to a number of comorbidities like high blood pressure and cardiovascular disease. It is also strongly associated with snoring, which can be disruptive to both the snorer and their sleeping partner. Not all people with sleep apnea snore, and not all snoring is cause for concern.

By supplying a steady flow of pressurized oxygen to a user's airway, CPAP machines can help normalize breathing in people with sleep apnea.

How Does a CPAP Machine Work?

A CPAP machine’s motorized fan delivers a set level of pressurized air through the hose and mask. The pressure strength is typically programmed by a health professional and can be adjusted based on a person’s comfort level and unique needs.

The hose connecting the machine to the mask is fairly stationary but is designed to accommodate minor shifts in position. The mask should be securely positioned on a user’s face in order to receive steady airflow. Adjustable headgear and straps allow users to customize the mask’s fit.

A CPAP machine should be used during a person’s entire sleep duration, and positive outcomes usually accrue with time.

CPAP, APAP, BiPAP: What’s the Difference?

While CPAP therapy is the most popular treatment for sleep apnea, there are alternative machines that can also help sleepers breathe more normally.

  • CPAP: Continuous positive airway pressure machines provide a constant flow of pressurized air. The pressure can be adjusted manually according to the user’s needs.
  • APAP: Automatic positive airway pressure machines deliver variable pressure based on a user’s breathing patterns. APAP therapy doesn’t require as much professional monitoring, since the machine automatically detects subtle breathing fluctuations and adjusts accordingly.
  • BiBAP: Bi-level positive airway pressure machines use two pressure levels to help regulate a sleeper’s breathing. Higher pressure output occurs during inhalation, while lower pressure is delivered during exhalation. BiBAP machines are often used when patients have hypoxia or don’t have success with CPAP therapy.

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