Using CPAP with a Cold or Flu

During the course of the year, most of us will come down with a head cold. Being ill with a head cold and the runny nose and nasal congestion makes it hard to get a good night’s sleep. A more severe illness such as flu amplifies the difficulties.

If you experience sleep apnea, you already have problems sleeping without the extra aggravations from a head cold or flu. Sleep apnea is a disorder that causes you to awake frequently through the night, leading to extreme daytime fatigue. 

CPAP therapy is one of the leading treatment methods for sleep apnea, but its effectiveness can be impeded by the symptoms of colds.

However, persevering with the therapy when ill helps you keep your sleep disorder symptoms under control. The following are a few ways to help you continue with your treatment when suffering from a cold.

Nasal Decongestants and Medications

This is the first solution most people will try. There are plenty of over-the-counter nasal sprays available to help ease nasal congestion. A saline spray or rinse is another inexpensive solution you can try. These help moisten the lining of the nose to reduce any discomfort caused by nasal irritation.

Similarly, over-the counter medication can help combat the symptoms of colds and flu. This includes anti-histamines which provide relief by targeting the symptoms which make sleep difficult. By easing these symptoms, you help minimize the impact on your sleep apnea treatment and increase the chance of sleeping well.

Change Your Sleep Position

A simple but often effective adjustment you can make when ill is with your sleeping position. Sleeping on your back may aggravate mucus congestion, so try to sleep on your side instead. In this position, gravity helps to keep the airways open and makes it easier for CPAP to work effectively. Otherwise, you may struggle with congested airways that won’t allow you to breathe comfortably.

If you struggle to adapt to side-sleeping, try elevating your head. This can be done by stacking pillows or by using a specially designed sleeping wedge pillow. By raising your head, you allow the mucus to drain away more naturally to relieve nasal congestion.

Heated Humidifier

Irritation or inflammation of the airways is another problem with a cold or flu. CPAP devices can accommodate a heated humidifier, which help with moistening the nasal passages and reducing irritation and inflammation. A heated humidifier also seems to reduce the risk and length of infections.

CPAP Pressure Changes

Congestion from mucus places extra strain on your CPAP device to push enough air through to maintain clear airways. While the air from your device may eventually remove any nasal congestion, sometimes additional pressure could be needed to clear obstructions. However, you should consult with your physician before making any changes to the pressure settings on your CPAP device.

An APAP device automatically adjusts the pressure setting depending on your breathing patterns. With these devices, pressure settings will be automatically adjusted to combat congestion to keep the airways open overnight. Again, this is something which should be discussed with your physician and may involve obtaining a separate device.

Try a Different Mask

There are three main mask types used with CPAP--nasal masks, nasal pillow masks and full face masks. When suffering with nasal congestion from a cold, the type of mask you use could make sleeping harder and negate the effectiveness of your sleep apnea treatment.

Nasal masks and nasal pillow masks can become difficult to use when you have nasal congestion. This can be magnified if you have a deviated nasal septum which sees one nostril blocked more. When suffering with a cold or flu, your physician may recommend switching to a full face mask to try and continue reaping the benefits of your treatment.

A full face mask allows you to breathe through the mouth as well as the nose. Therefore, if struggling to breathe through a congested nose, a full face mask lets you breathe through the mouth instead. This ensures your CPAP device continues to supply air and keeps your airways clear. Changing mask type may be a temporary measure, but one you would need to discuss with your physician first.

What If I Still Can’t Sleep?

While you should look to maintain your treatment course when ill to help keep a check on your sleep apnea symptoms, it is possible to stop using CPAP for a short while. Again, this is something best discussed with your physician or sleep specialist. However, you should still find that you will experience residual benefits from your treatment even if you do need to take a short break. 

As with allergies, the effect of a cold or flu can make sticking to the treatment harder. A congested or runny nose impedes the stream of air supplied by the treatment device and can make it harder to breathe. 

If the adjustments discussed above are not working and you are still finding it hard to breathe with your mask on, then a short break from your treatment plan may be advised.

Keep your Equipment Clean

Keeping all your equipment clean remains just as important when you are ill. Maintaining a strict cleaning schedule, ideally once a day, helps remove any germs from the mask and tubing that could make you ill in the first place, or increase the risk of re-infection when ill. 

Severe colds and flu can make using CPAP a challenge, but the benefits of persevering are the continued relief of your sleep apnea symptoms. Where possible, try to persist with your treatment plan, but if congestion is creating breathing issues you may need to consult with your physician or SleepQuest Sleep Care Specialist.