What is CPAP?

Continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) is a form of positive airway pressure ventilator, which applies mild air pressure on a continuous basis to keep the airways continuously open in people who are not able to breathe spontaneously on their own.

CPAP, or continuous positive airway pressure, is a treatment that uses mild air pressure to keep the airways open. When a person sleeps, the muscles of the entire body relaxes. This includes the upper airway muscles surrounding the throat. These muscles may relax enough to collapse on the airway causing an obstruction of oxygen into the lungs and carbon dioxide out of the lungs; This is called obstructive sleep apnea (OSA). CPAP helps to prevent this collapse by pushing air into the throat creating an air stent. Once the airway is open, the person will be able breathe easily as he/she sleeps.

CPAP overview

CPAP treatment involves a CPAP machine, which has three main parts:

  • A mask or other device that fits over your nose or your nose and mouth. Straps keep the mask in place while you’re wearing it.
  • A tube that connects the mask to the machine’s motor.
  • A motor that blows air into the tube.

Some CPAP machines have other features as well, such as heated humidifiers. CPAP machines can be small. They are also lightweight and fairly quiet. 

CPAP is often the best treatment for obstructive sleep apnea. Sleep apnea is a common disorder that causes pauses in breathing or shallow breaths while you sleep. As a result, not enough oxygen reaches your lungs.

In obstructive sleep apnea, your airway collapses or is blocked during sleep. When you try to breathe, any air that squeezes past the blockage can cause loud snoring. Your snoring may wake other people in the house.

The mild pressure from CPAP can prevent your airway from collapsing or becoming blocked.

The animation below shows how CPAP works to treat sleep apnea. Click the “start” button to play the animation. Written and spoken explanations are provided with each frame. Use the buttons in the lower right corner to pause, restart, or replay the animation, or use the scroll bar below the buttons to move through the frames.

Install Flash

If your doctor prescribes CPAP, you’ll work with someone from a home equipment provider to select a CPAP machine. Home equipment providers sometimes are called durable medical equipment, or DME.

Your doctor will work with you to make sure the settings that he or she prescribes for your CPAP machine are correct. He or she may recommend an overnight sleep study to find the correct settings for you. Your doctor will want to make sure the air pressure from the machine is just enough to keep your airway open while you sleep.

There are many kinds of CPAP machines and masks. Let your home medical provider know if you’re not happy with the type you’re using. He or she may suggest switching to a different type that might work better for you.

CPAP outlook

CPAP has many benefits. It can:

  • Keep your airway open while you sleep
  • Correct snoring so others in your household can sleep
  • Improve your quality of sleep
  • Relieve sleep apnea symptoms, such as excessive daytime sleepiness
  • Decrease or prevent high blood pressure

Many people who use CPAP report feel more energetic once they begin treatment. They’re more attentive and better able to work during the day. They also report fewer complaints from bed partners about snoring and sleep disruption.

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