Tips for Using a CPAP When You Have a Cold

Tips for Using a CPAP When You Have a Cold

By Tracy Published at November 27, 2012 Views 37,606 Comments 5 Likes 10

Just when you get the hang of using CPAP, and feel the blessings of restorative sleep again – BAM. You are hit with cold, flu or nasal congestion, can’t breathe through your nose and find yourself in sleepless misery again. What’s a person to do?

A cold has to run its course and the flu may take several days to visit and leave your body. Sleep has restorative powers, so we need quality sleep to help us recover from whatever is ailing us. The last thing we should do is stop using CPAP when we are sick. For the apnea patient, using CPAP every night is essential for our health and well being. It helps us cycle through the sleep stages in their proper order.  Stage 3, also called delta sleep, is a regenerative period where your body heals and repairs itself. Sometimes during illness, we fall immediately into delta sleep because infection fighting antibodies are produced in greater numbers in this sleep stage. This is an important sleep stage, and explains why doctors recommend we get plenty of sleep when we’re sick.

So how can we make a quick recovery from illness, if we can’t breathe well enough to use CPAP for sleeping? We all catch a cold or flu on occasion, so it’s wise to have a plan of action before you get sick.

Let’s start with the stuffy or runny nose. Treat your symptoms first. A sleep doc told me that nasal congestion could be temporarily improved by the use of over the counter* *(OTC) nasal sprays. Those sprays could be used for up to three days to relieve nasal congestion, assuming it is from a simple cold. If nasal congestion is from allergies, then the doctor said OTC, non-sedating antihistamines or topical nasal steroids requiring a prescription would be useful to permit the best effect from your CPAP device. Talk to your doctor about which medications would be safe choices for your overall healthcare needs.  Keep those OTC products in your medicine cabinet ready to use when needed.

Full-face masks can be a lifesaver when we are sick.  Sometimes, even with our best efforts, we simply cannot clear the stuffy or runny nose and are then forced to abandon our nasal masks to mouth breathe. Ask your doctor to write a prescription for a full-face mask and keep it handy for those nights when you are sick and can’t otherwise use your nasal or nasal pillow mask. It’s bad enough being sick, but abandoning CPAP therapy will just prolong the recovery. Using a full-face mask will give you the best shot at getting sleep when you’re sick.

Don’t underestimate the remarkable benefit of CPAP humidifiers. CPAP doesn’t work well if we can’t breathe through our nose or mouth while using a full-face mask. The nasal passage is highly vascular and lined with turbinates. When you have a cold or an allergy, the turbinates swell and cause nasal congestion – the dreaded stuffy nose. When the nasal lining is dry, it may trigger a sneeze, which is the body’s way of returning moisture. Dry mouth or airway can trigger the natural production of secretions, such as mucous. This explains why some of us awaken with mucous in the mouth and throat. It also explains why some of us experience a runny nose from CPAP use despite not having a common cold or allergy issue. When we are sick, and can keep the nose and mouth adequately humidified, everything works nicely together to accomplish CPAP success.

The sleep doctor also suggested people look into AutoCPAP devices. “Since CPAP is a single positive airway pressure, the additional upper airway resistance and nasal resistance can potentially reduce the benefits usually derived from ones CPAP therapy,” the doctor said. “It might make sense for those who experience variations in upper airway resistance associated with seasonal allergic rhinitis or episodic nasal congestion from colds or who consume alcohol socially on weekends to look into the potential benefit of an AutoCPAP device, which can vary the pressure necessary to maintain nasal patency and provide easy nasal breathing during deep sleep, regardless of any common circumstances that can influence upper airway resistance.” 

What is AutoCPAP, or APAP? Unlike CPAP, which is set to deliver one continuous pressure, APAP is set within a high and low, two-pressure range for the purpose of inhalation. The range is decided by your prescribing physician. APAP has a sensitive algorithm technology that allows the machine to detect how much inhalation pressure you need on a breath-by-breath basis. 

The theory of providing a range is that one’s pressure needs may vary during any given night or hour of sleep. Some of us may have nasal conditions or seasonal allergies that require higher pressures during part of the night or seasonally. Even a slightly stuffy nose may cause a worsening apnea episode, requiring an increased machine pressure. We may also need higher pressures on occasions when we are under the influence of alcohol too close to bedtime. Some of us require sedative medication for pain causing deeper sleep and thus more apnea events. Even over the counter cold and flu medications can have a sedative effect. On those nights, APAP will “cover” our needs for the proper inhalation pressure we need on a breath-by-breath basis.

When you don’t have a full-face mask or OTC medications handy, you will want to sleep on your side or in an elevated position. If back sleeping is necessary for you, do so in an inclined position; stack the pillows or raise the head of your bed. Some patients find that on these nights, sleeping in a recliner chair makes them more comfortable. The take home message is be prepared. We really don’t want to miss one night on CPAP if we can help it. Using CPAP when we are sick will help us recover quicker.

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