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August 2020 |  Reviewed by:  Andrea Matsumura, MD and Seema Khosla, MD

What is CPAP therapy?

CPAP therapy is the leading treatment for sleep apnea. CPAP stands for continuous positive airway pressure. CPAP therapy keeps your airway open by gently providing air through a mask you wear while you sleep. This splints the airway open and eliminates the breathing pauses caused by sleep apnea. When you sleep with a CPAP machine, you will no longer snore or make choking noises in your sleep. You will be able to sleep through the night without your body waking up from a lack of oxygen.

When you use CPAP each night, you can prevent or may even reverse serious health problems linked to sleep apnea such as heart disease and stroke. Your memory and mood may also improve. The quality of your sleep will improve, which, for some people, means you will feel more rested and alert during the daytime. Your partner might even sleep better because you will stop snoring.

A CPAP system is a small air compressor with flexible tubing and a mask. Most machines are about the size of a tissue box, lightweight and relatively quiet. You can keep the CPAP machine on your nightstand or at the side of your bed.

The tubing connects the CPAP machine to your mask. The tubing is long enough to allow you to move around or turn over in your bed.

The CPAP mask may cover only your nose or both your nose and mouth. Another option is to use nasal pillows, which fit in your nostrils. Some other masks fit snugly under your nose. No matter what type of mask you use, it is important that it fits well and is comfortable. The mask must make a seal in order to keep your airway open through the night. A good mask seal will prevent air leaks and maintain the right level of air pressure.

Your sleep doctor will determine the amount of air pressure needed for CPAP to treat your sleep apnea. The doctor may recommend a CPAP titration study to calibrate your air pressure setting. Most CPAP units also come with a timed pressure “ramp” setting. This starts the airflow at a very low level, so you can fall asleep comfortably. The machine slowly raises the pressure while you sleep until it reaches the right level to treat your sleep apnea.

CPAP is a lifestyle change. It works best when used all night, every night. You also should use CPAP when you are napping. Just one night without treatment can have a negative impact on your blood pressure. Your body will feel better the more you use CPAP.