CPAP (Continuous Positive Airway Pressure) treatment is often a great relief for people who suffer from sleep apnea. The improved quality of sleep improves the quality of life and strengthens the immune system.
Inevitably though, you’ll catch a cold at some point, leaving you stuffy, sneezy, and coughing. Dirty CPAP equipment can significantly increase the chances of your cold turning into something much worse, like pneumonia.
The Risks of Sleep Apnea and Pneumonia
Pneumonia occurs when a virus or bacteria gets into the lungs and causes an infection. If the body isn’t able to combat the infection, it can be fatal. Pneumonia causes fluid buildup in the lungs, as well as swelling and breathing difficulties.
The risk of pneumonia is higher for individuals with sleep apnea because they are more likely to suck fluid from their throat down into their lungs during apneic episodes.
The constant sleep interruptions associated with sleep apnea also weaken the immune system and prevent the body from fighting off infection.
Can Your CPAP Machine Cause Pneumonia?
The risk of getting pneumonia while using a CPAP machine is increased because the equipment has the ability to transfer viruses and bacteria into your lungs.
This occurs when CPAP equipment isn’t cleaned properly. If you have an upper respiratory infection, like a cold, the virus is transmitted onto the CPAP mask, which in turn pumps the virus into your lungs through pressurized air.
If you’re not careful, this can easily translate into pneumonia.
CMAJ research reported that 9% of sleep apnea patients develop pneumonia related to CPAP use. Their studies suggest that people using CPAP machines have a harder time clearing or coughing up mucus in the lungs, which leads to increases in fluid accumulation and pulmonary aspiration.
While they weren’t able to name CPAP as a definitive cause of pneumonia, they were able to conclude that CPAP machines increase the risk.
If you’re a CPAP user, you should do everything in your power to prevent this phenomenon from occurring. Consistently cleaning CPAP equipment, like the mask and hose, can significantly reduce your chances of a minor illness turning into a major one.
Mold and Fungus Formation
Most CPAPs are equipped with heated humidifiers and tubing to moisten and warm air. This makes it easier to breathe and prevents dry mouth during treatment.
The downside of this moist, warm environment is that it also attracts organisms like fungus, yeast, and mold that thrive in warm, humid atmospheres. Because the CPAP is pressurized, these little beasties get blown directly into your lungs, where they continue to propagate.
Mold can easily grow on your CPAP equipment, which not only threatens your health but can cause a bad cough by aggravating your airways. It can also lead to serious lung conditions like bronchitis and pneumonia.
Properly maintaining your equipment can reduce your chances of this happening. The longer you leave water sitting in your CPAP machine, the more likely mold will develop,
so it’s important to wipe and dry the machine regularly.
Clean Your CPAP Machine
Dirty CPAP machines are the most common reason for pneumonia complications in people with sleep apnea.
Your CPAP should have specific instructions for proper cleaning of your machine and filters.
It should outline the cleaning products to use, methods of cleaning, and frequency. Following these directions is your best defense against mold, fungus, viruses, and bacteria from growing in your CPAP.
There are a few general CPAP cleaning guidelines you can follow:
- Use distilled water – Using distilled water in your CPAP’s humidifier will significantly minimize your infection risk. Tap water houses minerals that can clog up your water chamber and hoses. Unpurified water can harbor organisms that might grow in your machine. While most tap water is safe, some can harbor microscopic bits of E.col, Salmonella, or even amoebas in certain regions. It’s best to be safe and only use distilled water in your machine.
- Don’t let water accumulate – As discussed earlier, mold grows in CPAP machines when water sits in them for a long time. Make it a habit to pour the water out of your machine following every use and clean and dry your equipment.
- Replace supplies regularly – Preventing CPAP pneumonia also involves regularly replacing supplies in your CPAP. Replace the filters at the interval recommended by your machine’s manufacturer to reduce spreading bacteria. Filters are key to reducing the spread of bacteria within your device, as they filter a good percentage of particles out from the air you breathe. Masks should be replaced at least once every three months. Filters and mask cushions should be changed out every two weeks to a month.
- Don’t share – This one seems obvious, but don’t share your CPAP machine with anyone else.
Even if not symptomatic, other people can spread illness that in turn transfers to you. An add-on to this advice is that it’s best not to purchase used CPAP equipment, particularly masks and tubing.
While you can buy CPAP sanitizer chemicals, they are expensive and not necessary.
There is no evidence to show that using a special CPAP cleaner is any more effective than cleaning with soap and water.
What these cleaners do offer is convenience for daily cleaning. They certainly don’t hurt, but they aren’t any safer if you commit to daily cleaning with soap and hot water.
Should You Use Your CPAP If You’re Sick
Suppose you are sick with a cold or any other virus, you should always consult your doctor to determine whether you should continue to use your CPAP machine for the duration of the illness.
Most likely, the answer will depend on the severity of your condition and whether it causes difficulty with your breathing.
It’s vital to thoroughly clean your CPAP while you are sick and for several days after you recover. Your immune system can take some time to rebuild after illness, and inhaling any further viruses or bacteria will make it worse.
An unmaintained or unclean CPAP machine can make you sick or further aggravate an existing illness.
Cleaning schedules should be maintained for CPAP machines, masks, hoses, and filters, and equipment should be replaced according to the manufacturer’s directions.
Keeping your machine in top shape will significantly reduce the chance of your CPAP causing pneumonia.