Continuous positive airway pressure or CPAP is a common treatment for sleep apnea, a sleep disorder in which breathing is interrupted during sleep. CPAP works by providing a steady stream of pressurized air that props open the airways and allowing you to breathe smoothly while sleeping. It is a safe treatment but it can cause annoying side effects like skin irritation, a runny or stuffy nose or dry mouth. If CPAP is too uncomfortable, there are other options.
Other Ventilation Options
Bi-level positive airway pressure machines deliver highly pressurized air when you inhales and then decrease the pressure when your exhale. This boosts the weakened breathing pattern of some sleep apnea patients. Adaptive servo-ventilation, or ASV, works by monitoring your normal breathing pattern during sleep and then using pressurized air to regulate your breathing. Some people also have success with an oxygen mask worn during sleep.
People whose sleep apnea is due to problems with the muscles that control breathing, as opposed to an airway obstruction, can benefit from medications that stimulate breathing. These include acetazolamide, which is sometimes used to prevent sleep apnea in high altitude conditions. Sometimes nasal sprays or allergy medications can help by keeping the airways open at night to ease breathing.
Oral appliances can prop open the airways to prevent sleep apnea. These devices work by pushing the jaw forward to keep the airway open or by preventing the tongue from falling back over the airway. These devices are more likely to work for those with mild sleep apnea who are not obese. They need to be fitted by a dentist or orthodontist.
When all else fails, surgery can open the airway to prevent obstructions from occurring. There are different techniques depending on the cause of the problem. In children with sleep apnea, removing the tonsils can help. For adults there are procedures that shrink excess tissue in the mouth or throat, either by injecting it with chemicals or by cutting it away.
Some sleep apnea is caused by obesity because fat around the neck narrows the airways. Weight loss can reduce or even eliminate the symptoms of sleep apnea for these people. Alcohol and certain drugs like painkillers, sedatives and muscle relaxants can worsen sleep apnea because they affect the muscles that control breathing. Avoiding alcohol and drugs that affect sleep apnea can reduce symptoms. Smoking also aggravates sleep apnea so people should quit to reduce their symptoms. Sleeping on your side instead of your back, perhaps with the help of special cushions or devices, can help keep airways open.