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Continuous Positive Airway Pressure
What is it? Overview Usage Side Effects and Warnings

Continuous Positive Airway Pressure Overview

Written by FoundHealth, Olivia Cerf.


A Continuous Positive Airway Pressure (CPAP) device is a breathing assistance machine that delivers constant air pressure into your mouth and nose. This helps to keep your airway open. It will allow you to inhale completely. The pressure is delivered through air from the machine through a face mask covering your nose or mouth and nose.

Continuous Positive Airway Pressure Machine
Continuous Positive Airway Pressure Machine
© 2009 Nucleus Medical Media, Inc.

Reasons for the Use of CPAP

CPAP is most often used for obstructive sleep apnea or sleep disordered breathing. This is a condition in which breathing stops during sleep many times during a night. This can lead to daytime sleepiness and many other complications. CPAP helps to keep the throat and airway open. People suffering from sleep apnea can then breathe normally while sleeping. It is considered to be the most effective treatment for sleep apnea.

Many patients who use CPAP for sleep apnea have the following:

  • Decreased daytime sleepiness
  • Decreased high blood pressure
  • Decreased heartburn symptoms
  • Improved quality of life

CPAP is also occasionally used:

  • In the hospital for patients with acute congestive heart failure
  • For preterm infants
  • During surgery with general anesthesia

CPAP is used to ensure that breathing remains steady.

What to Expect

Prior to Getting a Machine

  • A complete physical exam will be done.
  • Your doctor may require you to stay in a sleep lab. This will help to determine the correct amount of airway pressure for you and your condition.
  • You may see a pulmonologist or an ear, nose, and throat specialist (otolaryngologist).
  • Depending on your situation, your physician may recommend that you make lifestyle changes, such as:
    • Quit smoking
    • Losing weight
    • Exercising

Description of Using the Machine

  • Following your stay in a sleep lab, you may be prescribed a CPAP machine.
  • The CPAP machine includes a ventilator (pump) and a face mask. The pump sits off the bed and has a tube that goes to the face mask. The face mask will be tightly secured to your head so that air will not leak out. The pump will force air through your airway to help keep it open.
  • You will wear the face mask to bed every night.

How Long Will It Take?

If you are undergoing CPAP treatment for sleep apnea, you will use the machine indefinitely.

Will It Hurt?

Some patients using CPAP report chest muscle discomfort due to the increased lung volume. Talk with your doctor about the best way for you to relieve any discomfort.

Average Hospital Stay

If you are getting a CPAP machine for sleep apnea, you must stay in the sleep lab for a sleep study to ensure that the correct amount of pressure is used. You could have to stay in the sleep lab for just one night or a few nights.

Post-procedure Care

It is important to note that in the case of CPAP for sleep apnea, discontinuing the use of the CPAP will most likely cause symptoms to return. Follow the instructions for the care and cleaning of your machine and mask.



American Academy of Otolaryngology

American Lung Association

American Sleep Apnea Association


The Canadian Sleep Society (CSS)

Canadian Society of Otolaryngology

The Lung Association


Barnes M, Houston D, Worsnop CJ, et al. A randomized controlled trial of continuous positive airway pressure in mild obstructive sleep apnea. Am J Respir Crit Care Med. 2002:165:773-780.

Bratzke E, Downs JB, Smith RA. Intermittent CPAP: a new mode of ventilation during general anesthesia. Anesthesiol. 1998;89(2):334-340.

Chowdhuri S. Continuous positive airway pressure for the treatment of sleep apnea. Otolaryngologic Clinics of North America. 2007; 40(4):807-27.

Masip J, Roque M, Sanchez B, et al. Noninvasive ventilation in acute cardiogenic pulmonary edema: systematic review and meta-analysis. JAMA.2005;294:3124-3310.

Montserrat J, Ferrar M, Hernandez L, et al. Effectiveness of CPAP treatment in daytime function in sleep apnea syndrome: a randomized controlled study with an optimized placebo. Am J Respir Crit Care Med. 2001;64:608-613.



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