Sleep Apnea and Cold/Flu: How to Deal With It

Nasal congestion caused by a cold or flu can make sleeping difficult for anyone. However, when you have sleep apnea, congestion can be even more problematic. 

Obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) is the most common form of this sleep disorder, resulting in breathing difficulties caused by a narrowing of the upper airways while asleep. A runny or blocked nose compounds the problem.

Prevention Is Always Preferable

Sleep is a crucial part of the body’s restorative process. It can boost the immune system, helping to fight off colds and influenza. Maintaining good sleep hygiene is therefore a key starting point in reducing the risk of infection. 

Taking preventative measures to avoid becoming ill in the first place is always the best stance to take. Frequently washing your hands for at least twenty seconds, while avoiding touching your nose and mouth, are good practices. 

If someone is complaining of having cold-like symptoms, it is best to avoid them until they are feeling better.

Flu Risks and OSA

Obstructive sleep apnea often goes undiagnosed, yet the disorder can put you at higher risk of hospitalization for flu. Therefore, you could consider getting vaccinated every winter. This is something you could discuss with your doctor.

If you do have sleep apnea, you may want to consult your doctor once you experience flu-like symptoms. They may be able to prescribe antiviral drugs that can reduce the impact of the infection. 

As sleep apnea can increase the risk of further issues such as high blood pressure, you should always consult with your doctor before taking any medication, including over-the-counter medications for colds.

Should I Try to Continue with CPAP?

Continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) therapy is a leading treatment for obstructive sleep apnea. The device delivers pressurized air through a mask worn while you sleep -- which helps prevent the collapse of the upper airways, allowing you to breathe normally through the night.

However, when you have nasal congestion, using CPAP can become uncomfortable. When your airways are blocked, CPAP is less effective since the airflow is blocked. At this point you may be tempted to abandon CPAP for a few days until your congestion has cleared.

While in most instances a temporary break from CPAP should cause no issues, it can result in your sleep apnea symptoms returning. A reason some people might consider such a break from CPAP is when their nasal congestion is severe.

For minor congestion, CPAP can actually offer some relief. The pressurized air may clear minor congestion and open up the nasal passages. If you use a heated humidifier, the warmer moist air may offer some relief too.

Instead of immediately ditching CPAP when you have a cold or flu, there are ways to make CPAP more tolerable.

Tips on Using CPAP with a Cold or Flu

You should take preventative measures such as maintaining good sleep hygiene, washing your hands regularly and avoiding others who are ill when you have a cold or flu. 

However, the following are tips to make CPAP more comfortable and effective when you have nasal congestion.

  1. Keep your head elevated. This can be easily done by stacking a few pillows or using a wedge pillow. Elevating the head can help prevent mucus accumulation in the nasal passages.

  2. Sleep on your side. Positional therapy may not be a new idea if you have already been diagnosed with obstructive sleep apnea. When sleeping on your back, gravity pulls the relaxed muscle tissues in the throat down to block the airways. Therefore, you may be encouraged to sleep on your side to counter this. Sleeping on your side can keep the airways clearer, and could help make CPAP more tolerable when you are stuffed up.

  3. Use a saline spray. By moistening the lining of the nose, a nasal spray can help relieve any inflammation and allow you to breathe easier.

  4. Try a nasal decongestant. This may also provide relief, but should be used sparingly. It is best to consult your doctor on using a nasal decongestant. It is also worth noting that a decongestant can take a couple of hours to kick in, and this needs to be considered in relation to your normal bedtime.

  5. A full-face mask may work better than a nasal mask. This is because it provides the option to breathe through the mouth or nose. A full-face mask can also remove some of the pressure from the nose. If you normally use a nasal mask or a nasal pillow mask, you can return to it once your congestion has gone.

  6. Use heated tubing. This reduces the risk of a build-up of bacteria and condensation in the tubing through which the pressurized air flows from the CPAP device to your mask. Keeping your CPAP equipment clean is always important, including when you have an infection.

Keep Your CPAP Equipment Clean

When you are feeling ill you will not feel like doing tasks such as cleaning your CPAP equipment. However, it is important you do so. Sneezing and coughing while wearing your CPAP mask can be uncomfortable, but it can also leave a residue of mucus on the mask.

You should clean your equipment regularly regardless of whether you are ill or not to prevent any build-up of mold and bacteria. While it is unlikely you will reinfect yourself using CPAP, there is a risk from other bacterial infections without regular cleaning. Such regular cleaning is also a good preventative tool during the cold and flu season.

Cleaning is an easy process and includes:

  • Soaking your mask, tubing and humidifier in hot water and soap for up to 30 minutes.
  • Rinsing out with water to remove any soap residue.
  • Air drying the washed parts.
  • Replacing filters on CPAP machine.

Although a cold or flu can make breathing difficult when trying to sleep, it is best to continue using CPAP if possible. If you feel you need to take a temporary break from CPAP due to a respiratory infection, chat to your doctor first.