CPAP vs Ventilator: What’s the Difference?

Ventilator cpap BIPAP

There is often confusion surrounding the CPAP machine, the BIPAP machine and the ventilator with many people finding themselves unaware of the differences between these devices as well as why these differences are important.

For anyone suffering from sleep apnea or another condition that requires assistance with breathing through the night, the use of one of theses devices is life changing. But before you start using one of these machines, it is important that you are aware of which one to choose.

In this article, we are going to be diving into the differences between the CPAP, the BIPAP and the ventilator, giving you a more comprehensive understanding of the benefits of each of them. This will allow you to make a decision on which one will work best for you.

What Are The Main Differences Between The CPAP Machine And The Ventilator?

Depending on the reason for using the machine, your doctor will advise you on which one is most suitable for your condition. However, it is still important to be aware of the differences in order to understand why you need to use it and how it will benefit you.

The CPAP Machine

The CPAP machine is a device which is most often used for patients who are suffering from obstructive sleep apnea which can cause the patient’s airway to close off or become obstructed. The patient is able to breathe by themselves but may need help in keeping the airway open continually. The CPAP (continual positive airway pressure) machine uses constant air flow which is pressurised to ensure that the airway is kept free from obstruction and the patient is easily able to breathe through the night.

Before beginning use of the CPAP machine, patients will usually be sent for a sleep study, in which the doctor will be able to determine what level of pressure is required, therefore allowing for the correct type of CPAP equipment. That being said, there are some CPAP machines which can be adjusted to deliver varying levels of pressure. A CPAP machine which has this feature will usually monitor your breathing and alter according to your needs.

The Ventilator

As opposed to the CPAP machine which is used for patients who are able to breathe spontaneously without assistance, the ventilator is a piece of equipment which is designed to help patients who struggle to breathe unaided, this might be someone who suffers from respiratory condition which limits their ability to breathe.

Whilst the CPAP machine can be used for however many hours the patient is asleep, the ventilator usually requires at least six hours of constant use throughout the night in order to see any sort of benefit from it.

There are some ventilators which can be used by the patient continually, 24 hours a day. This type of ventilator is used for those who have conditions such as a neuromuscular disease or who have suffered an accident which has prevented them from being able to breathe alone.

In the case of using a ventilator at night time, this is something which is offered to patients with a respiratory condition such as COPD. The machine is used whilst sleeping and can ease the patient’s breathing and make sleeping more easy and comfortable.

Whilst there are some ventilators which are large and static, there are also others which are extremely lightweight and can be easily carried around with the patient if day long use is required.

The BIPAP Machine

The BIPAP or bi-level positive airway pressure device is one which is much more complex than the CPAP machine. Whilst the CPAP machine is designed for patients with obstructive sleep apnea, the BIPAP machine is aimed at those who suffer from central sleep apnea and the CPAP machine simply isn’t sufficient to control the condition.

The CPAP machine has one level of pressure for both inhalations and exhalations whereas the BIPAP machine, as it’s name might suggest has two pressures. One which is used on inhales and one which is used on the exhale.

Why The Difference Matters

As we have seen, these three different machines are all used for different things and this is a major reason in why the differences are essential when considering which one to use.

For patients who have life limiting conditions the ventilator will provide a much better support than either the CPAP machine or the BIPAP machine. So it would be evident that if a patient with a condition which required a ventilator were to use a CPAP machine, they would not be receiving the correct help, therefore would not benefit from the device.

In order to properly manage your condition, it is vital that you are using the correct piece of equipment. You wouldn’t take an anti-depressant for a headache, so you should never use the incorrect piece of equipment when it comes to assisted breathing.

Additionally, the BIPAP machine has often been used as a replacement for patients who find using a CPAP difficult as the BIPAP has two pressure settings. Depending on how you manage in breathing with a CPAP will depend on which type of machine will work better for you. Understanding the differences in how each machine works is crucial.

What Are The Benefits Of CPAP, BIPAP And The Ventilator?

Now that we understand that each of these machines has been designed for different health conditions, we can move on to looking at how each of them can be of benefit. This will allow us to further understand the differences between them and how each of them can control the problems for which they are used.

The CPAP Machine

Since the CPAP machine is used for patients suffering from obstructive sleep apnea, it can provide many benefits. Let’s look at some of the benefits in a little more detail.

  • Using a CPAP machine to treat obstructive sleep apnea can have an effect on other areas. It is common for patients with this condition to develop heart conditions due to the periods of restricted or no breathing that are experienced each night. This lack of oxygen can have an effect on the heart, however through using a CPAP machine, these risks are reducing, giving the patient a healthier heart and less chance of heart disease.
  • Similarly to heart disease, those who suffer from obstructive sleep apnea are between 2 and 4 times more likely to suffer from a stroke. Using your CPAP machine each night will greatly reduce this risk.
  • There has also been a link to diabetes with sleep apnea and so the use of a CPAP machine can reduce the risk of developing this sometimes life threatening condition.
  • One of the most noticeable benefits of using a CPAP machine is that it will provide you with a better night’s sleep and this will translate into feeling less fatigued and drowsy during the day.
  • Alongside feeling less tired, you will also notice that you have a greater level of concentration as a result of this and so will likely be more productive in your day to day life.
  • Using a CPAP machine can help to eliminate snoring which can be a disturbance to the sleep of both you and your partner.
  • The CPAP machine might feature a pressure setting which begins at a low pressure and builds gradually to the full pressure over a period of time, allowing the user to adapt to the pressure rather than using the prescribed pressure from the moment they get into bed.

The BIPAP Machine

The BIPAP machine can help patients with sleep apnea in many of the same ways as the CPAP machine, reducing the chances of fatal health conditions such as heart disease and stroke as well as providing you with a much more comfortable night’s sleep. However, one of the key differences with the CPAP and BIPAP machines is the pressure settings.

We learned earlier on that the CPAP delivers one constant pressure which remains the same on both inhaling and exhaling. However, some patients can find it difficult to get used to breathing out against the incoming air pressure of the CPAP machine and so one of the major benefits of the BIPAP machine is that this problem is removed.

Many patients may try out a CPAP and decide that they cannot get used to the continual pressure and so will swap to a BIPAP machine. It is, of course, important that you discuss this with your doctor so that the right arrangements can be made and the correct equipment can be set up.

One of the most notable benefits (and differences) of the BIPAP machine is that is is often used for patients who not only suffer from sleep apnea but from a pulmonary condition as well. Therefore if you are suffering from the two, this machine can be of much more benefit than the CPAP. Let’s sum up the benefits:

  • Often easier to use for patients who struggle with the CPAP.
  • Health benefits, including reduced risk of certain conditions.
  • Useful for patients with underlying breathing conditions.
  • BIPAP machines often have a built in breath timer which measures how many times you should breathe in 60 minutes. If you stop breathing, the machine will take a ‘break’ forcing you to begin breathing once again.

The Ventilator

Finally we will take a look at the benefits of the ventilator. As we discovered, this type of equipment is used for people who are suffering from health conditions which stop them from being able to breathe without assistance. If you are suffering from sleep apnea, it is unlikely that you would benefit from this type of machine unless you are also suffering from a chronic condition which limits your ability to breathe.

There are many benefits associated in using a ventilator, however, for those that need one. Let’s explore these a little further.

  • For patients with serious respiratory conditions the use of a ventilator enable them to ‘take a break; from breathing so to speak. This type of equipment does much of the hard work for the patient which means that their respiratory system is not having to work as hard, therefore reducing strain on it.
  • For those who are using a ventilator temporarily, the equipment allows for a much more speedy recovery from illness or injury as the body is not having to work as hard.
  • In extreme cases where a patient is severely suffering, a ventilator can be used as an invasive form of assisted breathing by way of a tracheotomy, a CPAP and BIPAP machine is ONLY ever a form of non-invasive breathing assistance.
  • Using a ventilator at night can bring some of the same health benefits as the CPAP and BIPAP machines for patients with more severe health complications such as improved concentration, less fatigue and better alertness during the day.
  • Similarly to the BIPAP machine, a ventilator can monitor the amount of breaths taken in a set time period and can adjust itself to suit the current breathing of the patient, meaning that sleep is left uninterrupted whilst the breathing can continue safely and effectively.


It isn’t difficult to see why many people find the CPAP, BIPAP and ventilator confusing since there are so many similarities. All three of these devices are used to treat patients who suffer from conditions which limit or obstruct their breathing during the night. However, each one of these machines is designed to work with different types of condition, whilst the CPAP and BIPAP machines are intended for use in patients who suffer from sleep apnea, the ventilator is designed for patients with respiratory conditions or for those who have suffered trauma and as such, are unable to breathe unaided.

Each of these devices comes with its own range of benefits and provided that they are used for the correct condition, you will notice great improvements. It is very important to be mindful of the differences in these machines in order that you understand how they work and get the right one for your needs.





Dan was diagnosed with sleep apnea in 2017 when he was only 32 years old. He has been using a BIPAP machine for his treatment. He hopes to provide a patient's perspective on the sleep apnea experience. Dan lives in Tampa with his girlfriend and 2 dogs.

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