What Is Nasal CPAP Therapy?

Nasal continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) therapy is a nonsurgical treatment that provides a steady flow of air to the lungs through the nose. Nasal CPAP is a common treatment for those with obstructive sleep apnea, a sleep disorder that disrupts normal breathing and interrupts deep sleep. It may also help infants with underdeveloped lungs breathe more easily.

Individuals of all ages who have obstructive sleep apnea often make good candidates for nasal CPAP therapy. Sleep apnea is a chronic condition that disrupts sleep. Frequent pauses in breathing actually stop the flow of air to the lungs. After each pause, the body’s natural defenses kick in to start the breathing again, pulling the individual out of the deep sleep stage.

Some obstruction in the airway typically creates these pauses in breath. Throat muscles that relax too much to allow normal breathing can block the flow of air. A large tongue or tonsils may also create an obstruction. A blocked airway can cause the individual to snort, choke, or gasp. At this point, the problem tends to correct itself and breathing resumes, only to become blocked again moments later.

The corrective periods in between pauses are often so brief that the individual doesn’t remember them. That’s why in many cases, sleep apnea goes undetected. Symptoms, however, may include:

  • snoring loudly (though not everyone who snores has sleep apnea)
  • gasping or choking during sleep
  • feeling irritable, depressed, grumpy, or impatient during the day
  • falling asleep at the drop of a hat, such as while watching television, reading, or even working
  • forgetting things
  • having frequent or hard-to-treat headaches
  • having morning dry mouth or sore throat

Though sleep apnea may seem at most an irritation, the disorder can be life-threatening. Without treatment, sleep apnea can increase the risk of:

  • heart attack
  • stroke
  • irregular heartbeat
  • high blood pressure
  • other related conditions

Fortunately, treatment is most always successful at reducing these risks and restoring sound sleep.

If you see your doctor and receive a sleep apnea diagnosis, your doctor may send you home with a nasal CPAP device.

People with mild sleep apnea may find relief through simple lifestyle changes, such as avoiding alcohol, losing weight, and using nasal sprays or allergy medications. Others breathe more easily with a custom-made mouthpiece or oral appliance that adjusts the position of the lower jaw and tongue to help keep airways open during sleep.

Individuals with moderate to severe obstructive sleep apnea, however, often require a breathing device called a nasal CPAP machine. This device blows air into your nose through a nose mask, helping to keep the airway open while you sleep. A small machine, called an air compressor, is placed on a bedside table and connected to a tube and mask that fits over your nose. This machine delivers a steady flow of air through the tube and mask, exerting just enough pressure to keep muscles and tissues from collapsing and blocking the airway.

Your doctor or nurse will help you choose the mask that best fits over your nose, and then will adjust the settings on the CPAP machine to the pressure required for your condition. If you don’t notice improvements after a week or so, check back with your doctor, as they may need to adjust the pressure settings.

After using the machine regularly, most patients report dramatic benefits, including the following:

  • improved sleep
  • less anxiety and better overall mood
  • improved concentration and memory
  • increased productivity

Though most people get used to using the CPAP machine over time, others experience problems. These may include the following:

Runny Nose, Earache, or Sore Eyes

These may be due to an ill-fitting mask. An improved fitting can correct this. A heated humidifier attached to the machine may also help.

Sore or Inflamed Skin

This is also usually the result of an ill-fitting mask, or one that’s too heavy or improperly cushioned.

Claustrophobic Sensation of Feeling Closed-In

Different types of masks with straps that cover less of your face may help.

Uncomfortable Sensations with Forced Air

The “ramp” feature on the machine allows you to start with lower air pressure, which can help you better tolerate this sensation. If this doesn’t help, other machines (called BiPAPs) that automatically adjust pressure while you’re sleeping may help.

Dry Mouth

If this problem doesn’t go away after a few weeks, ask your doctor about a CPAP device that covers both your nose and mouth.

In most cases, working with your doctor to make adjustments to your device will result in a solution that will feel more comfortable.