Continuous Positive Airway Pressure (CPAP)

What Is CPAP?

CPAP, or continuous positive airway pressure, is a treatment that uses mild air pressure to keep your airways open. CPAP typically is used for people who have breathing problems, such as sleep apnea.

CPAP also may be used to treat preterm infants whose lungs have not yet fully developed. For example, doctors may use CPAP to treat infants who have respiratory distress syndrome or bronchopulmonary dysplasia.

The main focus of this article is CPAP treatment for sleep apnea, although treatment in preterm infants is discussed briefly.


CPAP treatment is done using a CPAP machine. CPAP machines have 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 are small, lightweight, and fairly quiet. The noise that they make is soft and rhythmic.

CPAP is the most effective treatment for obstructive sleep apnea. Sleep apnea is a common disorder in which you have pauses in breathing or shallow breaths while you sleep. When this happens, not enough air reaches your lungs.

In obstructive sleep apnea, your airways collapse or are blocked during sleep. The blockage may cause shallow breathing or breathing pauses. 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.

If your doctor prescribes CPAP, you will work with someone from a home equipment provider (sometimes called durable medical equipment, or DME) to select a CPAP machine.
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 airways open while you sleep.

There are many different kinds of CPAP machines and masks. Be sure to tell your doctor if you're not happy with the type you're using. He or she may suggest switching to a different kind that may work better for you.

CPAP also may be used to treat preterm infants whose lungs haven't fully developed. For this treatment, soft prongs are placed in an infant’s nostrils. The CPAP machine blows air into the baby's nose through the prongs. This helps to gently inflate the infant's lungs.


CPAP has many benefits. It can:

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

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

In some preterm infants whose lungs haven't fully developed, CPAP improves survival and decreases the need for steroid treatment for their lungs.

Also, in some infants, CPAP prevents the need to insert a breathing tube through the mouth and into the windpipe (an endotracheal tube) to deliver air from a ventilator. (A ventilator is a machine that helps with breathing.) CPAP treatment is less invasive than ventilator therapy. Research suggests that CPAP is an appropriate first treatment for some preterm newborns.

Reference: National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute

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This information is for general educational uses only. It may not apply to you and your personal medical needs. This information should not be used in place of a visit, call, consultation with or the advice of your physician or health care professional.

Communicate promptly with your physician or other health care professional with any health-related questions or concerns.

Be sure to follow specific instructions given to you by your physician or health care professional.

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