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Can a Dirty CPAP Make You Sick? Here’s How to Tell and What You Should Do Next

Table of Contents

Man sleeping with a clean CPAP after he realized he needed to clean it more often

💡 Key Takeaways

  • CPAP Safety: CPAP Therapy is generally safe and offers numerous health benefits. However, improper maintenance can lead to side effects, including respiratory and skin infections.
  • Low Risk But Preventable: While the risk of getting sick from a CPAP machine is low, it is not zero. Proper cleaning and maintenance can significantly reduce this risk.
  • Symptom Recognition: Recognizing the signs of CPAP-related illness early on is crucial. Symptoms can range from respiratory issues like sinus infections and bronchitis to skin conditions like dermatitis and impetigo.
  • Maintenance Matters: Regular cleaning of your mask, hose, and water tank is essential to prevent bacterial and mold growth, which can lead to illness.
  • Consult Healthcare Providers: If you experience persistent or recurring symptoms, consult your healthcare provider for proper diagnosis and treatment.

Continuous Positive Airway Pressure (CPAP) Therapy has many great benefits, including better health and more energy. Unfortunately, there can also be side effects that arise if you don’t use and maintain your equipment correctly.

You may have even heard reports of people developing a cough, sinus irritation, or dermatitis after starting CPAP. If so, you may be hesitant about CPAP therapy and even wonder, “Can a CPAP Machine Make You Sick?”

The short answer is yes, but the good news is that it’s actually quite rare and easily preventable!

Can CPAP Make You Sick?

Getting sick from CPAP is pretty rare, but it can happen. Without proper cleaning, CPAP masks, hoses, and water tanks become a breeding ground for bacteria and mold, which can lead to illness and even infections in your sinuses, throat, lungs, or skin.

Although concerns about CPAP sickness are valid, research suggests that CPAP therapy does not increase your risk for illness. One 2017 study found that people who used a CPAP machine were not more likely to develop sinus infections, bronchitis, or pneumonia.

Ways You Can Get Sick from CPAP

While rare, the people who get sick from CPAP usually fall into one of two categories. They developed an illness in their respiratory tract due to dirty CPAP equipment. Or they have a skin infection caused by their CPAP mask or headgear.

Upper and Lower Respiratory Illnesses

Depending on the type of mask you use, CPAP airflow is directed through your nasal cavity and/or mouth, into your throat, through your airway, and into your lungs. For this reason, your sinuses, throat, airway, and lungs are the most susceptible to a CPAP-related illness such as:

  • Sinus Infections
  • Pharyngitis
  • Laryngitis
  • Bronchitis
  • Pneumonia

Signs and Symptoms of Respiratory Illness from CPAP

Developing a stuffy nose or cough with CPAP doesn’t necessarily mean that your CPAP is making you sick. Whether or not CPAP causes your illness, the main signs and symptoms will probably look very similar, as will the treatment.

However, if you notice that you have a recurring illness or have been sick for more than a couple of weeks with no signs of improvement, it could be a sign that your CPAP is the cause of your illness.

Here are some symptoms associated with these types of illnesses to keep an eye out for:

  • Chest or Nasal Congestion
  • Runny Nose
  • Sneezing
  • Yellow or Green Sinus Drainage
  • Sore Throat
  • Vocal Changes
  • Coughing With or Without Mucus
  • Chest Pain
  • Difficulty Breathing
  • Fever
  • Body Aches
  • Swollen Lymph Nodes

Skin Infections

When not fitted correctly, CPAP masks rub against the skin and put pressure on the contours of your face. Over time, this can weaken your skin barrier in the affected areas, leaving you susceptible to the bacteria growing on your skin and CPAP mask.

Initially, you may experience a mild case of CPAP dermatitis, but without proper care, you could eventually develop a full-blown bacterial infection—usually caused by staph or strep—such as:

  • Dermatitis
  • Impetigo
  • Cellulitis
  • Folliculitis
  • Boils
  • Erythrasma
  • MRSA

Signs and Symptoms of Skin Infection from CPAP

Red marks and mild skin irritation are two of the most common complaints from people who wear CPAP masks and aren’t usually a cause for concern. Usually, these spots will disappear after a few hours. However, if you begin to notice that those areas remain inflamed for days on end, it could mean that you are at risk for an infection.

Here are some signs to watch out for that could indicate that those spots are becoming infected and need medical attention:

  • Swelling
  • Rash
  • Intense Itchiness
  • Sensitivity to Touch
  • Drainage
  • Skin Peeling
  • Redness that Doesn’t Fade
  • Affected Area that Feels Warm
  • Fever
  • Body Aches
  • Swelling in Surrounding Lymph Nodes

How to Tell if CPAP Is Making You Sick

At some point, you may find yourself asking, “Is CPAP making me sick?” The truth is it can be hard to tell!

CPAP sickness usually takes time to progress and is unlikely when you maintain your CPAP device correctly. When it does happen, it usually looks like a sinus infection, cough, cold, or skin infection that just won’t go away or keeps coming back over and over again.

Here are some factors to consider when figuring out whether or not your CPAP machine is causing you to feel unwell:

  • You Can’t Seem to Get Better. When the CPAP equipment you use every night is the source of your illness, it causes you to be reintroduced to those disease-causing germs over and over again. This often means that once you get sick, you stay sick.
  • You Keep Getting Sick. Even if you initially get better after being sick, CPAP-related illnesses and infections tend to come back repeatedly. You will most likely continue experiencing this cycle until you fix the source of the problem for good.
  • You Don’t Have a Fever. Running a fever is a common sign that you are sick or have an infection. But, if you’re only mildly ill from CPAP, you may never run a fever.
  • You Just Started Using Your Equipment. It takes some time for germs to build up on the surfaces of new CPAP equipment. If you’re feeling sick within just a few nights of starting CPAP therapy, your device is probably not the cause.
  • You Slowly Developed Symptoms. CPAP infections often develop gradually over time. Just because you went to bed feeling fine and woke up feeling sick after using CPAP doesn’t mean your CPAP is causing you to feel unwell.
  • Your CPAP Has Been Causing Irritation for a While. A CPAP infection usually progresses in stages. You may notice signs of irritation and inflammation before developing an actual infection, especially on your skin.
  • You Have a Weakened Immune System. While it could happen, it’s rare for healthy people to get sick from CPAP. A CPAP illness or infection is much more likely (and could be more severe) if you have a weakened immune system or chronic condition.
  • You Skipped Washing Your Mask for a Couple of Days. Manufacturers suggest cleaning your CPAP mask daily. However, skipping a day or two of cleaning your mask probably won’t cause a CPAP sickness as long as the rest of your equipment is clean.
  • You Didn’t Clean Your CPAP Hose or Water Tank. Germs grow best in warm, moist environments. In other words, a CPAP machine. If you haven’t cleaned your CPAP tank or hose for a while and are experiencing cold-like symptoms, that may be the cause.
  • You Feel Unwell After Reusing Old CPAP Water. Stagnant water that has been sitting in your CPAP machine for more than a day can grow bacteria and other organisms that pose a serious risk to your health.
  • You’ve Been Using Tap Water Instead of Distilled. Unlike distilled water, which has been sanitized, tap water contains lots of impurities and can even carry germs that can enter your airways and make you sick.
  • You Are Struggling to Sleep With Your CPAP. Some people regularly struggle to fall asleep and stay asleep with CPAP. No matter the cause, if you’re regularly not getting enough sleep, it can leave you feeling unwell and even weaken your immune system.

Should You Use Your CPAP When Sick?

Using your CPAP while sick is perfectly safe for most people. In fact, experts often encourage people to use their CPAP machine when sick because the warm, humid air can open up your airways and loosen up mucus.

Using CPAP With a Stomach Bug

There is one big exception to this rule. If you use a full face mask and have a stomach bug, your healthcare provider may warn against using CPAP if you think you may throw up because doing so increases your risk for aspiration.

Using CPAP With a Cold or Flu

Using your CPAP machine when you’re sick with a cold or flu is very important. Sinus infections and respiratory illnesses can cause swelling in your sinuses and airway, worsening your sleep apnea.

If you use CPAP with a nasal mask, your treatment may become less effective with congestion. Specialists often recommend that anyone undergoing nasal CPAP therapy purchase a full face mask for backup when you’re too stuffed up to breathe through your nose.

Other Reasons You Feel Sick from CPAP

CPAP therapy is unlikely to cause you to become truly ill, but that doesn’t mean it can’t make you feel poorly. CPAP machines have several known side effects, which some people confuse for signs of CPAP sickness. Many of these issues are temporary and should resolve themselves once you have addressed the cause.

Alternative reasons CPAP makes you feel sick may include:

  • Your CPAP is causing nasal congestion from air flowing through your nasal passages.
  • You’re experiencing mouth or mask leaks, which causes a dry, sore throat or cough.
  • You have been swallowing air, which has caused abdominal discomfort and gas.
  • You’ve been struggling to sleep while using your CPAP machine.
  • You are allergic to something used to make or clean your CPAP machine.

How to Avoid CPAP Sickness

It’s important to use your CPAP equipment correctly and follow standard maintenance instructions to prevent getting sick from CPAP. This includes cleaning and replacing your equipment on schedule and making sure your mask fits correctly so it doesn’t cause irritation.

Until you address the source of your illness or infection, you will most likely remain sick for a long time or experience recurring issues that may seem to get better for a short time but come back soon after.

If you want to stop the cycle or avoid a CPAP sickness altogether, you should follow these tips:

  • Daily Cleaning: Wash your CPAP mask daily with mild soap and warm water.
  • Weekly Maintenance: Clean your CPAP hose and humidifier tank weekly.
  • Filter Replacement: Replace your CPAP filters as per the manufacturer’s schedule.
  • Proper Drying: Ensure all equipment is fully dry before use.
  • Use Distilled Water: Always use distilled water in your CPAP machine to minimize bacterial growth.
  • Don’t Let Water Sit: Completely empty your water chamber in the morning, allow it to dry, then put in fresh distilled water again each night.
  • Try a UV Sanitizer: Use a CPAP cleaning machine to sanitize your equipment fully.
  • Raise the Humidity: Increase your CPAP humidifier settings to reduce irritation in your airway.
  • Prevent Mouth Breathing: Support your jaw with a chinstrap or try mouth taping or a full face mask to prevent irritation and inflammation in your airway caused by accidental mouth breathing.
  • Check Your Seal: Adjust your mask fit to prevent rubbing and reduce pressure points.
  • Investigate Early: If your CPAP is causing irritation, figure out the cause and address it early on rather than ‘powering through.’

Frequently Asked Questions

Can a CPAP Machine Make You Sick?

When used properly, CPAP machines are safe and unlikely to cause illness. However, not cleaning your CPAP equipment properly allows it to harbor bacteria and mold, which can cause sinus infections and respiratory infections.

Can a Dirty CPAP Mask Make You Sick?

Not cleaning your CPAP mask for more than a couple of days could put your health at risk. Over time, germs, facial oils, and dirt will build up on your mask, increasing your risk for skin infections and exposing your airway to disease-causing bacteria.

Can Your Partner’s CPAP Machine Make You Sick?

Air released from a CPAP mask is no different than the air your partner exhales normally. You should always take normal precautions when a bed partner is sick. However, their actual CPAP machine will not make you sick unless you are both using it.

What are the Symptoms of CPAP Sickness?

Symptoms depend on the reason you are ill. If you have a respiratory illness or sinus infection from CPAP, you will experience cold-like symptoms, such as congestion, cough, sore throat, etc. However, skin infections from CPAP cause redness, warmth to the touch, and discharge.

Final Thoughts

Bottom line: can a CPAP machine make you sick? It’s highly unlikely, but it can happen if you don’t take care of your CPAP equipment or use it correctly. When CPAP sickness does occur, it usually causes respiratory illness, sinus infections, or skin infections.

If you’re concerned about CPAP making you sick, regularly clean your CPAP mask and machine, and don’t forget to replace your filters on schedule. To reduce your risk for mask infections, adjust your mask fit so that it doesn’t rub against your skin or cause additional irritation.

  • Kenzie Dubs

    Kenzie is a science-based content writer who has a passion for educating the public on the healing powers of sleep! She graduated with a bachelor's degree in biology in 2016 and went on to earn a second degree in nuclear medicine shortly after. She has several years of professional experience in healthcare, including emergency medicine, radiology, and general care. Along with her unique background, Kenzie also has personal experience with sleep apnea, including loved ones who have recently begun their own CPAP journeys. With each article, she aims to provide our readers with honest, accurate information that they can use to improve their health and wellness!

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