Sleep Apnea and Congestion: Should I Stop Using My CPAP Machine?

Rampant winter germs can make treating your sleep apnea harder. Do runny noses and CPAP mix? Should you stop CPAP therapy until you’re better?

It starts as a tickle in your throat. Then your sinuses start to pound and your nose starts to run. Achoo! Winter is full of germs and sniffles. For many, even warmer temperatures don’t bring relief, since seasonal allergies start to flare up once plants start to bloom. Whether they’re caused by pollen or a pathogen, cold symptoms are no fun—and they’re even less so for CPAP users.

If you’ve recently started CPAP therapy to treat your obstructive sleep apnea (OSA), or even if you’ve been using CPAP for a while, you’ve probably wondered whether you can use your breathing mask when you’re under the weather. Read on to learn more about CPAP therapy, the common cold and what you can do to make sure you stay healthy and comfortable, no matter the season.

You’ve come down with a cold. Now what?

Whether it’s nasal congestion, sinus pressure or a sore throat, common cold symptoms can be hard on CPAP users. If you use a nasal mask or nasal pillow mask, your irritated nostrils may become even more irritated when they come into contact with your mask. The pressure from your mask straps may feel unbearable if your sinuses are clogged, and the air from your CPAP machine may aggravate your sore throat and dry out your already dry eyes. So, what can you do?

According to Dr. Brandon Peters, MD, for severe colds and congestion, CPAP users can usually temporarily stop using their machines without any negative effects. They may even sleep soundly, without symptoms of sleep apnea, for several days after stopping CPAP—just long enough to get over that pesky cold.

However, Dr. Peters also emphasizes that continuing to use CPAP might even help relieve minor cold symptoms. The air pressure from the CPAP machine can loosen mucus from the nasal passages for easier breathing and more restful sleep. If you’re unsure about whether you should temporarily stop using your CPAP machine, make sure to check with your doctor or respiratory therapist.

If you do continue to use your CPAP machine while you’re sick, remember to be extra careful about cleaning it. A clean CPAP setup is always important, but it is even more so when you’re unwell. This is because an unclean CPAP machine can actually prolong your illness. According to Dr. Daniel Barone, there is a risk of secondary infection, meaning viruses in your machine or on your mask could make you sick again after you’ve started getting better. This is why you should clean everything more thoroughly and more often when you’re sick. Various types of cleaning machines, some of which don’t require additional water or chemicals, are available to clean your entire CPAP setup automatically when you’re not using it. There is also a variety of wipes and cleaners available for your mask and tubing to make sure viruses and mucus don’t stick around.

The connection between the common cold and sleep

There is an undeniable link between lack of sleep and the common cold. A study led by a prominent researcher at University of California, San Francisco and published in the journal Sleep found that people who get less than six hours of sleep a night are four times more likely to get sick when exposed to the common cold virus compared to those who get more than seven hours.

One reason sleep apnea can be such a devastating disease is that it affects sleep quality, which, in addition to weakening the immune system, can lead to heart disease, obesity, and diabetes. CPAP is therefore the most effective way to sleep soundly again after a sleep apnea diagnosis, making it an excellent way to not only treat sleep apnea, but also keep your whole body healthy.

Keys to better sleep when you’re sick

If you have a cold or the flu and you need to continue your CPAP therapy, there are a few things you can do to make it as effective as possible, improve your comfort, and help you get over your cold fast. Here are five tips that are sure to help.

        1. Switch from a nasal mask to a full-face mask

Masks that fit over your nose or in your nostrils may be uncomfortable to wear if you’re congested. Plus, when you’re stuffed up, you’re likelier to breathe through your mouth while you sleep, making nasal masks ineffective. If you have a full-face mask, you can sleep with your mouth open without affecting your therapy.

        2. Use a heated CPAP humidifier

A common complaint is that air from the CPAP machine can make a sore throat feel worse. An integrated heated humidifier adds moisture to the air, making it more comfortable to breathe. According to the Sleep Zone, using a CPAP machine with a humidifier may also help break up mucus and relieve sinus pressure. The humidified air can soothe irritated nasal passages and airways and reduce sore throats to alleviate your symptoms while you sleep.

        3. Sleep on your side

Sleeping on your back when you’re sick can cause mucus to irritate the back of your throat. Side sleeping helps mucus clear naturally without making your sore throat worse. You can buy a special pillow to make wearing a mask more comfortable while sleeping on your side.

        4. Take over-the-counter medications

According to Jason Wooden, PhD, CPAP users can use a cough suppressant to help stop coughing, along with an expectorant to loosen mucus and a decongestant to clear sinuses and congestion. Some medications can even make you drowsy so you can fall asleep faster. Always make sure you check with your doctor or pharmacist about starting or adding medications and take care when combining medications.

        5. Protect your eyes

Even perfectly fitted masks can have air leaks. These leaks can irritate your eyes and dry them out. Most ophthalmologists recommend using lubricating, gel-like tears just before bed to keep eyes moist. Many CPAP users have also had enormous success using an innovative comfort device called the Facembrace, which serves as a protective layer to shield your skin from irritation and strap marks. It also deflects air away from your eyes so that they don’t dry out. Facembrace wearers report a significant increase in comfort, even when they’re not sick, which allows them to stick to their treatment more easily. To learn more about the Facembrace, visit the product page here.