Sleep apnea continues to be one of the most common undiagnosed conditions in the U.S. It’s estimated that 26% of people aged 30-70 suffer from obstructive sleep apnea OSA. For those who have been evaluated and diagnosed with OSA, using a CPAP machine is the “gold standard” of treatments. And as with any medical equipment, it’s important to use, care and maintain your CPAP properly. In this article, we’re going to discuss how to clean a CPAP along with some do’s and don’ts to ensure that your CPAP machine functions properly.
Sleep Apnea and CPAP, a Brief History
Sleep apnea was first recognized in 1965. Before that it was just seen as brief episodes where breathing was blocked due to an obstructed airway. The consequences of which were thought to be negligible. However, a breakthrough study in 1965 recognized the relationship between OSA and more severe and chronic conditions like heart disease.
This recognition of OSA as a disease or condition unto itself lead researchers on a quest for a treatment for OSA. For years, up until the 1980’s, the only treatment for OSA was a tracheotomy. A procedure where an incision is made in the windpipe that bypasses the obstruction. Obviously walking around with a hole in your throat was a less than ideal solution for most people.
Then in 1980 Dr. Collin Sullivan developed the first CPAP machine. CPAP is an acronym for Continuous Positive Air Pressure. The idea behind it was to introduce a constant airflow into the airway with enough pressure to bypass any obstruction. The results had a dramatic effect on both the number of OSA episodes per night and the patient’s overall mental and physical health. As a result, Dr. Sullivan’s invention of the CPAP machine is recognized as one of the greatest breakthroughs in sleep medicine.
How to Clean a CPAP Machine, and Why it’s Important
Despite all the advancements that have been made in CPAP therapy over the last forty years, the basic components of a CPAP remain the same. A CPAP machine consists of four main parts.
The Motor or Compressor – The CPAP motor is responsible for drawing in room temperature air and pressurizing it so that it will clear the obstruction. The motors used in CPAP machines are completely enclosed and insulated which makes any noise barely audible.
The Water Chamber – Almost all modern CPAP machines now have a heated water chamber that is used to humidify the air in the system. The tissues in the nose throat and mouth can become dry and irritated when there is not enough humidity in the pressurized air of the CPAP. By adding a water chamber modern CPAP machines can avoid this uncomfortable side effect.
CPAP Hoses – The standard CPAP hose consists of six feet of plastic tubing with rubber fittings on each end. The purpose of the hose is to deliver compressed air from the CPAP machine to the CPAP mask. Newer hose designs can be heated in order to eliminate the condensation that can occur from humidity.
CPAP Masks and Headgear – The mask is the part of the CPAP machine that you wear when sleeping. The headgear is what keeps the mask in place. There are three basic mask types. Full face which typically cover both the nose and the mouth. Nasal pillows that provide the pressurized air directly into the nostrils. Nasal masks that typically fit over the entire nose providing pressurized air at the base of the nose.
Why You Need to Clean Your CPAP Machine
Proper cleaning and maintenance of your CPAP is important to ensure that the machine works correctly as well as for your respiratory health.
Things like clogged filters can affect the operation of the machine. While improper or inadequate cleaning can introduce mold, dust, allergens as well as bacteria into your respiratory system. These things can cause irritation as well as infections. And that can cause some of the same issues as sleep apnea, defeating the entire purpose of having a CPAP machine.
How to Clean a CPAP Machine, Part by Part
The reason I broke down the CPAP machine into its component parts is because each of those parts are cleaned and maintained separately.
Please note, the following instructions are only to be used as an example of how to clean a CPAP. Please refer to your user's manual for specific instructions on cleaning your particular CPAP.
CPAP Motor/Compressor – The only part of the CPAP motor that requires maintenance is the air filter found on the cover. You should replace this filter approximately every two weeks to one month. The CPAP motor itself should be completely enclosed. Under no circumstances should you attempt to open this enclosure. There is no maintenance or cleaning required for the motor. In fact, attempting to open this enclosure will almost certainly void your warranty. If dust accumulates on the outside of the housing, it can be wiped off with a clean dry rag.
Water Chamber – Because the water chamber is both moist and heated, it is the ideal place for bacteria to grow. You should take special care to make sure that the water chamber remained as clean as possible. You can do this by: Only using distilled water in the chamber. Emptying out any excess water that’s leftover in the morning. Drying the chamber completely each morning. You should also clean the water chamber once a week by soaking it in a solution of warm soapy water. Then rinse and let it air dry. you can also disinfect it once a month by soaking it in a solution of one-part vinegar and five parts water for 30 minutes. Then rinse and air dry. You should replace your water chamber approximately every six months.
CPAP Hoses – Your CPAP tubing should be cleaned once a week. All you need to do is swirl it around in a sink or tub of warm soapy (liquid dish soap is fine) water for five minutes. Then rinse and air dry. You can hang the tubing over a shower or towel rod in the bathroom to dry. You should replace your tubing approximately every three months.
CPAP Masks and Headgear – Your CPAP masks and headgear should be wiped down daily, especially the parts that touch your face. You can use a damp rag with a mild soap to accomplish this or you can buy wipes specifically designed for use on CPAP’s. Your mask and headgear require a thorough cleaning once a week (except for nasal pillows which should be cleaned daily). You can use the same method you used for the tubing. Swirl the mask and headgear in a sink or tub with warm water and a mild ammonia free soap for five minutes. Then rinse and air dry. You should replace a nasal pillow approximately every 2-4 weeks, other masks should be replaced every 1-2 months.
What About the SoClean or Other CPAP Sanitizers?
The debate about the usefulness and potential health benefits or health problems related to the SoClean and other CPAP sanitizing devices is ongoing. I’ll try to give you both sides of the issue before letting you know my personal opinion of these devices so you can make up your own mind.
How They Work
Virtually all the CPAP sanitizers work the same way. We are all familiar with oxygen, O2. It’s the stuff we breathe in that keeps us alive. These CPAP sanitizers disinfect using something they call “activated oxygen” O3. “Activated oxygen” is really nothing more than a marketing term for ozone. You may remember ozone from your science class. It’s found in the atmosphere and protects us from harmful UV rays.
However, ozone (O3) is a highly volatile gas that reacts easily with other things. When it comes into contact with the bacteria found in a CPAP machine it reacts and kills the bacteria. In this sense it does exactly what it’s advertised to do.
The other side of the coin is that “activated oxygen”, ozone or O3 at ground level reacts with human and plant tissue too. In fact, ozone is considered a pollutant at ground level and suspected of causing or contributing to various health problems. You can see why these companies use terms like “activated oxygen” instead of ozone, who wants to say there product is known to be hazardous to humans.
How to Clean Your CPAP: My Personal Advice
This is always a tough one as what is right for one person may not be right for another. And while I have never used a CPAP sanitation device, I have done a lot of research on them.
And just like almost any product, these devices have those who swear by them as well as those who develop buyer’s remorse. But here are the reasons that I don’t use one of these devices.
- I have other health concerns along with OSA that ozone in known to make worse.
- I am not generally prone to upper respiratory infections. So even if I forget to clean my CPAP, I don’t get sick.
- Even with one of these devices, manual cleaning is required to remove any hair, skin cells and oil that accumulates on the mask.
- Price, these devices can cost $300 plus. I have been just fine using warm water and a couple of pennies’ worth of dish soap.
But in the end, only you and your doctor can evaluate whether a sanitizer would be of use. I can certainly see it being helpful to someone who is prone to developing upper respiratory infections or has a compromised immune system. And as long as you have the money and don’t have other health concerns, then by all means try it out. After all, there has not been a rash of illnesses linked to their use.
By the way, did you know that you can use an anti-snoring mouthpiece along with a CPAP for even better results? Find out more here.
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