Whether you’re considering getting CPAP therapy for your sleep apnea or have already started treatment, you may have concerns about any potential side effects and dangers of using this machine. Starting a new treatment is a huge step, so in this article, we’ll cover the full A-Z of CPAP side effects, to allow you to make the most informed decision regarding your health.
The good news is: there are no serious risks associated with continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) use. Moreover, the vast majority of patients report that the improvements in their health and overall life quality far outweigh the small discomfort that they may occasionally experience from the therapy. The bad news is that it may take some time to get used to using the appliance, with some patients giving up within the first few weeks. However, if you stick with it, you will be amazed at the scale of the positive impact it will have on your wellbeing – both physical and mental!
Most notable CPAP machine side effects
You may experience air leaking out of the CPAP mask. This usually happens when the mask is the wrong size or has not been strapped on properly. It can also mean that the air pressure has been set too high.
If you’re not used to using the mask, it can be tricky to get the knack of breathing naturally, which can result in shallow breathing (which leads to other symptoms on this list, such as air leakage, dizziness and trouble falling asleep) and the panic of feeling as though you can’t breathe can result in a negative experience with using the mask.
Nose and throat symptoms
You may experience a dry nose or, on the contrary, a runny nose and congestion. These are all inter-related symptoms, as when your nose begins to get too dry, it will start producing mucus to counteract this dryness. Mouth-breathing results in a dry mouth and a sore throat, so breathing through your nose is essential.
Rashes, sores and red marks
If the mask has been put on too tight, you may wake up with a sore face and, over time, facial tissue damage because of the constant aggravation of this sensitive area. This can be down to a high pressure or air leakage, which causes a buildup of moisture between the seal of the mask and your skin, resulting in an unpleasant rash.
You may experience increased bloating, gas and burping after CPAP use. This is known as aerophagia and happens when you swallow the air, rather than it going into your lungs. This is one of the more physically uncomfortable and mentally stressful side effects, and it too is commonly caused by a pressure that has been set too high. If you’re panicking and not breathing calmly, you may also end up swallowing the air, rather than breathing it in.
Insomnia and trouble falling asleep
You may find it difficult to get a good night’s sleep if you haven’t gotten used to using your CPAP mask yet. It can feel really uncomfortable and restricting to wear it to bed. Not only this, but for many people, lying in the dark with this appliance strapped firmly over the face can feel extremely claustrophobic.
Dizziness and vertigo
One of the reasons you may be experiencing dizziness is due to the changes in middle ear pressure. The CPAP machine pushes air into your throat and nasal cavity, which are both connected to your ears. Try holding your nose, shutting your mouth and expiring air out of your lungs. Did you feel it trying to make its way into your ears and slightly ‘blocking’ them? A very similar principle applies when using a CPAP machine, except that air may be pushed in with greater force, resulting in pressure changes inside the ears, which leads to vertigo sensations.
Sleep apnea is known to cause high blood pressure, so if you’ve been prescribed medication to reverse this issue, and if you don’t experience the apnea when using CPAP, taking such medicine could result in blood pressure that is too low, which is a common culprit behind dizziness. Regardless, see an ENT doctor to determine the causes of your tinnitus.
Tinnitus and CPAP have no traceable cause and effect relationship, but nevertheless, this issue is commonly reported by CPAP users. It does seem to be the case that the majority of people who have this side effect had tinnitus before they started CPAP treatment. CPAP can worsen pre-existing tinnitus symptoms.
Weight gain and CPAP use
Commonly, those who are overweight and/or suffer from obesity are more likely to develop obstructive sleep apnea. However, the relationship between these two conditions seems to be bidirectional: patients often report gaining weight after starting CPAP, something that has been observed in various studies. This study, for example, determined that starting the treatment does increase body mass index (BMI) and overall weight. There is no concrete explanation for this effect as of yet, but more studies are currently being carried out now to determine the cause of this bidirectional relationship between CPAP use for obstructive sleep apnea and weight gain.
How to avoid CPAP side effects
Although some side effects listed above may seem very unpleasant, they are all easily avoided with proper utilization of the CPAP equipment. Should you ever experience any of them, keep in mind these game-changing tips:
- Ensure that the mask you’re using is a good fit: it should be a comfortable size for your face. Choosing a mask of the appropriate size and shape will ensure that you don’t experience any air leaks, so if the one you’re using now is causing you problems – change it! Cleaning your mask every day will ensure it doesn’t slide around and stays firmly put. Furthermore, to make sure your tossing and turning throughout the night doesn’t shift the mask, find yourself a body pillow that will keep you snugly in place and look for masks designed for active sleepers. Finally, avoid over tightening the mask – this will allow you to avoid painful mask marks on your face.
- An irritated, dry or runny nose is easily remedied by using the heated humidifier function that is available on the majority of new CPAP devices.
- If you find that air leaks, dizziness, or tinnitus have become common occurrences and adjusting the straps of the mask doesn’t help, speak to your doctor about reducing the air pressure on the machine.
- If the mask is making you feel uneasy or even claustrophobic, try getting used to wearing the mask during the day, when it feels more comfortable and you won’t work yourself up about not being able to fall asleep. Wear it for shorter periods of time at first, and increase the duration every day – try doing everyday things such as watching TV or even cooking, as well as simply lying down, relaxing and reading a book whilst wearing it. It’ll help you to adjust and stop seeing it as something out of the ordinary. Get comfortable by choosing an orthopedic pillow for the correct head and neck positioning when sleeping with the machine, or a large, soft king size pillow to take the stress out of sleep and drift off in peace and comfort!
- To avoid aerophagia and bloating, give yourself some time to learn to breathe properly when using the machine. This can be a real learning curve, so try to breathe normally, calmly and with full confidence that you can breathe with the mask on. Most CPAP machines come with a “ramp” feature, which gradually increases the pressure to your prescribed value. Find out from your CPAP provider if this option is available on your device.
CPAP therapy is perhaps the most widespread method for battling sleep apnea, but there are some alternatives:
Sleeping on your side and at an incline will prevent the upper airway from collapsing during the night, thus preventing sleep apnea from manifesting. The best sleep apnea pillow is without a doubt a wedge pillow, which will give you that perfect angle as you’re lying down. This may not seem like much, but it can truly make a world of difference.
As sleep apnea is often associated with a high BMI and even obesity, losing weight can help the individual to get rid of this condition altogether. Not only this, but you’ll become healthier all around, which can only have a positive impact on your sleep and life quality!
These dental mouthguards (made from silicone or plastic) function by changing the jaw position: the lower jaw is shifted slightly forward, thus widening the airway opening and preventing airway collapse during sleep. You can get one molded to the shape of your teeth and jaw for the most comfortable fit. The advantage of these devices is that they’re not as large or obvious as a CPAP machine and therefore a more psychologically comfortable treatment for most patients.
Uvulopalatopharyngoplasty (UPPP) is the most common type of surgery to help sleep apnea patients. Although the name might suggest otherwise, this is a relatively simple procedure that involves removing some tissue from the back of the throat (such as the tonsils, uvula or a small section of the soft palate) to remodel the throat and create a larger airway size.
A CPAP machine is a highly effective treatment for obstructive (and sometimes central) sleep apnea. It’s no coincidence that this is the most popular therapy for the disorder – it has a huge success rate, and once you get the hang of using the machine, you’ll wish you got one sooner! As with any other medical intervention, it’s not without side effects – but in the case of CPAP, the pros most definitely outweigh the cons. Suffering from sleep apnea poses much higher risks, such as brain damage due to lack of oxygen and an increased likelihood of heart attacks and strokes. The side effects associated with CPAP use, on the other hand, are mild and never pose any serious health risks, so you can feel safe in the knowledge that you have nothing to lose – and everything to gain!