Sleep Apnea Masks: Which One is the Right Fit for You?

By Maria Ramos
Last Updated: November 17, 2018

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First things first: How do you know if you need a sleep apnea mask? Don’t leave this to chance and Googling! If you suffer from snoring, see a healthcare professional and discuss treatment options with your doctor.

You may just be an occasional snorer, or have mild sleep apnea that can be managed by a less complicated sleep apnea mouthpiece. Obstructive sleep apnea is fairly common, but an official diagnosis is a must.

Using a sleep apnea mask is often part of what is effectively a lifestyle change. Unlike most sleep apnea mouthpieces, you would only be able to use sleep apnea masks in conjunction with some type of positive airway pressure (PAP) machine.

This therapeutic mask and machine setup will need consistent cleaning and maintenance, and can be costly and unwieldy. On top of this, a sleep apnea mask that’s not compatible with your body and the way you sleep won’t be as effective. This is precisely why there are so many different sleep apnea mask variations on the market.

Before we tackle the different kinds of sleep apnea masks—and the machines to use them with—we should to take a step back and gather more information. As we’ve stressed above, it’s important to consider the path that would lead someone to have pick out a sleep apnea mask for themselves! Taking care of your sleep health is essential, but you don’t want to end up investing in something you don’t need.

man snoring in bed while woman beside him covers ears with pillow

How Is Snoring Different from Sleep Apnea?

Snoring is caused by vibrating parts of the body’s respiratory system caused by breathing while asleep. This phenomenon can be completely harmless, but in some cases it may also be a primary sign or symptom of a sleep disorder called obstructive sleep apnea (OSA).

To put things into perspective: Almost half of all adults in the US suffer from snoring, but only 25 million adults report having obstructive sleep apnea.

While even occasional snoring can be a cause for concern, it’s not advisable to assume that you have OSA just because you snore loudly. We say this all the time, but only because it’s always true: Consult a doctor and get an official diagnosis.

The other extreme is just as bad! Self-medication can be dangerous, but ignoring red flags and symptoms is also a no-no. If your snoring bouts are consistent or getting worse, don’t go for the wait-and-see approach. Any sign of OSA should always be taken seriously, as it is a sleep disorder that can lead to life-threatening complications if left untreated.

What Is Obstructive Sleep Apnea?

OSA is a sleep disorder that is characterized by routine impairment of breathing during slumber due to blockage of airflow within the body. 

The difficulty in breathing can and quite often leads to sleepers taking unconscious steps to increase air intake. This, in turn, results in easily recognizable symptoms like heavy mouth-breathing or loud snoring. Choking and gasping for air are also common.

Obstructive sleep apnea can cause discomfort in the form of irritations due to dry mouth and throat, as well as frequent sleep interruptions and night awakenings. Overall, the reduced air intake also reduces the amount of oxygen circulated within the body—this affects the body’s entire well-being.

Other symptoms of obstructive sleep apnea include excessive daytime sleepiness and bouts of microsleep, as well as many effects of poor sleep: difficulty concentrating, headaches, lack of focus, and even moodiness.

How Do You Develop Obstructive Sleep Apnea?

The cause of obstructive sleep apnea can also be as simple as a physical predisposition. People with smaller air passages, a larger tongue, or a deviated septum may be more prone to having OSA. 

Obstructive sleep apnea is essentially a physical issue, after all. It makes sense that the way someone is built would affect the chances of them developing OSA. Due to this, obese and overweight people may also be more likely to suffer from sleep apnea. Surprisingly, some eye disorders may also be considered risk factors for OSA, too.

Something that’s not often highlighted is the role of sleeping positions in occurrences of snoring and sleep apnea. While treating OSA is usually not as simple as changing from back sleeping to side sleeping, the position you sleep in can significantly impact air intake—and the loudness of your snoring.

Age and sex have something to do with it, too. Statistics conclude that more men than women have OSA. Cases of the sleep order also increase the older an age group is. Taking all of this into consideration, the profile of a person most at risk of developing obstructive sleep apnea is an obese male that is middle-aged or older.

What Are the Consequences of Having Obstructive Sleep Apnea?

OSA—especially if left untreated—will increase the risk of developing diabetes, as well as cardiovascular health problems like irregular heartbeats, hypertension and heart disease. Heart attacks and strokes are more likely, too.

We already know that obstructive sleep apnea negatively affects the body’s oxygen levels. This contributes to a whole host of problems: higher heart rate and blood pressure, greater levels of inflammation-causing and blood sugar-elevating chemicals in the body, and overall more stress to the heart.

Diabetes, hypertension and obesity are already often comorbid with obstructive sleep apnea. If you suffer from one, chances are that you may have an increased risk of developing the others, and of suffering from serious heart diseases, too.

What Are Common Obstructive Sleep Apnea Management and Treatment Options?

Mild sleep apnea may be treated with a basic weight loss plan and a change in sleep habits. More severe cases may need help from sleep apnea mouthpieces. The most extreme types of obstructive sleep apnea may benefit from surgery or some type of positive airway pressure (PAP) therapy.

You may be scared of being diagnosed with OSA because you don’t have to have to wear a sleeping mask for sleep apnea. Don’t fret! Sleep apnea treatments without mask and machine use do exist. Ask your doctor to go through all the available options with you.

Common sleep apnea mask alternatives you’ll come across will include mouthpieces like tongue retaining devices (TRDs) or mandibular advancement devices (MADs). Many anti-snoring devices on the market today may actually be used to ease the pains brought about by OSA! Just note that anti-snoring products may simply provide palliative care—that is, they may treat the symptom but not the disorder itself.

PAP therapy is a typical method of treatment because it provides the great relief in terms of air intake, without being as invasive as surgery. It is often the next step taken if oral appliance therapy for sleep apnea proves insufficient. In some cases, the two may be combined! Some PAP therapy setups can accommodate oral appliances to provide specific treatments for very complicated cases of OSA.

Let’s learn more about PAP therapy below.

What Is Continuous Positive Airway Pressure Therapy?

Continuous Positive Airway Pressure (CPAP) therapy is the most common of its kind used to treat obstructive sleep apnea. A CPAP setup—consisting of a mask, tube and machine—is needed to administer the therapy, which works by using a constant flow of air to keep your throat and other breathing passages open while you sleep.

CPAP is so ubiquitous that sleep apnea masks are almost always called CPAP masks, even though other PAP therapies may also be able to use them.

Important to note: A CPAP machine isn’t cheap! It can be beyond your budget if you don’t have insurance. A CPAP machine can set you back thousands of dollars—not to mention the cost of accessories and maintenance.

An interesting counterpoint to the cost of a CPAP machine is its popularity. Because it’s a common way to manage obstructive sleep apnea, there’s a whole industry out there that supports it. Competition is healthy, and you’ll be able to find many budget alternatives if you look hard enough.

How Does A CPAP Machine Work?

With a CPAP machine, the air pressure is—as the name implies—-continuous as it is constant. The air is pressurized by the motor within the machine, sent up through the connected tube, and administered via the mask fitted over the sleeper’s nose or whole face.

Some CPAP machines have a built-in ramp feature that works by gradually increasing air pressure over a set period of time. This is is a comfort setting meant to make it easier for sleepers to adjust to CPAP therapy.

Other comfort concessions are reflected in the various designs of available masks for sleep apnea machines. Some CPAP machines also come with a humidifier that can reduce the common side effect of nasal irritation that develops with regular CPAP therapy.

How Does A Sleep Apnea Mask Work?

Also referred to an oxygen mask for sleep apnea or a CPAP mask, a good sleep apnea mask should fit snugly over the sleeper’s nose and/or mouth. The edges of the mask should form a seal and should have no part that lets the pressurized air leak out.

Mask leaks are a common problem, and are attributed to ill-fitting or loose masks, as well as natural oil and dirt buildup. What happens when there’s a mask leak? You’ll hear the air leak out and you’ll feel the air pressure change. If you’re asleep when it happens, your rest may be interrupted and you may wake up.

To avoid or fix leaks, you may try the following: adjust the straps of your sleep apnea mask, turn on the ramp feature of the CPAP machine, and make time for regular sleep apnea mask cleaning. You may also need to consider changing masks completely if the problem is the mask’s age or incompatibility with your face shape.

It’s worth noting that there are a few cases when a sleep apnea mouthpiece can also be (part of) a CPAP mask—and therefore may be synonymous to a sleep apnea mask. For certain cases, a doctor may work in conjunction with a dentist to create a custom mouth device for sleep apnea that can be directly attached to a CPAP machine.

What Are the Other Types of Positive Airway Pressure Therapy?

Apart from CPAP, other PAP therapies that a doctor may recommend for obstructive sleep apnea include autotitrating positive airway pressure (APAP) and bilevel positive airway pressure (BPAP or BiPAP).

Positive airway pressure therapy is actually a generic medical term for any form of sleep apnea treatment that depends on artificial air pressure meant to support and prevent the collapse of airways while the patient is asleep. Almost all PAP therapies require the same three parts: mask, tube and a machine with a motor.

APAP is not constant or continuous, but reactive. APAP machines will automatically raise or lower the air pressure it uses to ease the symptoms of obstructive sleep apnea throughout the night. APAP machines can sense changes in your breathing and adjust accordingly. This is very useful if you’re prone to seasonal allergies, colds or respiratory infections. Most APAP machines have a simple CPAP setting, too.

BPAP is sort of a hybrid. It uses two alternating and different levels of air pressure. Pressure rises when you breathe in, and decreases when you breathe out. BPAP setups are often recommended after CPAP and APAP therapies prove incompatible. Cases of obstructive sleep apnea comorbid with other breathing disorders may also benefit from BPAP.

What Are the Different Sleep Apnea Mask Types?

There are three main types of sleep apnea masks, based on the coverage they offer: the nasal mask, the nasal pillow mask, and the full face mask.

Let’s run through the three kinds of sleep apnea masks below and find out what makes each one unique.

1. Nasal CPAP Masks

The sleep apnea nasal mask is one of the oldest, most prevalent and popular designs available. The mask itself is supposed to cover and create a seal around the entire nose. The part that delivers the air to the sleeper should rest between the upper lip and the nose. Most nasal masks for sleep apnea include cushions made of softer material—like gel or silicone—to guard against irritation in places where the mask touches bare skin.

Philips Respironics Wisp Nasal Mask
Philips Respironics Wisp Nasal Mask, via Amazon

Here are some examples of nasal CPAP masks:

  • Philips Respironics Wisp Nasal CPAP Mask (Check deal on Amazon). This Philips sleep apnea mask is a complete mask system for sale in one convenient package. For under $50, you get: headgear, frame, nasal cushions in multiple sizes, and a small tube.
  • Resmed Air Fit N10 63200 (Check deal on Amazon). Unfortunately, this is marked by Amazon as available to purchase only for those with a healthcare license and an Amazon Business Account. If it’s essential for you to order this online, we recommend coordinating the sale with your doctor to make the transaction possible.

2. Nasal Pillow CPAP Masks

Nasal pillow sleep apnea masks are quickly overtaking simple nasal masks in terms of popularity due to the extra comfort they provide. They’re especially great for new users and users with beards, mustaches or long hair.

Instead of covering the entire nose, this small sleep apnea mask uses a cradle or pillow with tubes that are supposed to fit and connect directly to your nose openings! A seal around each nostril and minimum facial contact makes nasal pillow CPAP masks some of the most comfortable sleep apnea masks around.

ResMed Swift FX Nose Pillow CPAP Mask
Resmed Swift FX 61500, via Amazon

Here are some examples of nasal pillow CPAP masks:

  • Philips Respironics DreamWear Gel Nasal Pillow CPAP/BPAP Mask (Check deal on Amazon). The DreamWear sleep apnea mask comes with three different sized of nasal pillows (small, medium and large). There’s also adjustable headgear and a frame, making this a complete mask system
  • Resmed Swift FX 61500 (Check deal on Amazon). Like the DreamWear, this ResMed sleep apnea mask comes with multiple nasal pillow sizes and adjustable headgear and everything else to make this a comprehensive CPAP mask purchase.

3. Full Face CPAP Masks

A full face mask is exactly what it sounds like. This type of sleep apnea face mask covers both your nose and mouth! It’s particularly indicated for obstructive sleep apnea cases that feature consistent mouth breathing when untreated. This type of CPAP mask is the most difficult to get used to, because of the coverage it provides—to some, it can be daunting and claustrophobic.

Fisher & Paykel Simplus Full Face CPAP Mask
Fisher & Paykel Simplus Full Face CPAP Mask, via Amazon

Here are some examples of full face CPAP masks:

  • Philips Respironics DreamWear Full Face Mask (Check deal on Amazon). This Philips Respironics design is an attempt to make the full face sleep apnea mask more open, flexible and modular. Though considered a full face design, the mask doesn’t cover the nose—rather, the cushion sits right where the nostrils are.
  • Fisher & Paykel Simplus Full Face CPAP Mask (Check deal on Amazon). Lightweight and ergonomic, this full face CPAP mask is nevertheless more traditional than the full face version of the DreamWear. The entire nose is covered, and the cushions come in three different sizes.

Should You Buy a Sleep Apnea Mask Online?

Buying a sleep apnea mask online has both advantages and disadvantages. The answer depends on what is more important to you: speed and efficiency, or a wide selection of products.

The good: PAP machines and sleep apnea masks are for the most part able to mix and match. In general, any sleep apnea mask will work with your APAP, BPAP or CPAP machine—regardless of manufacturer or brand. This means that you don’t need to worry about compatibility issues between your PAP machine at home and any new sleep apnea mask you buy.

The bad: Shopping online for a sleep apnea mask can be a nightmare if you’re not extra careful! The devil is in the details, as they say. Some online retailer product listings may not clearly state what’s included. Sleep apnea mask parts like the frame, headgear and cushion are replaceable and may be sold separately—so unless you’re ordering replacements, make sure that what you’re ordering is a complete mask system.

There’s also the fact that original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) won’t always have branded storefronts. You will have to source from resellers sometimes, which can make identifying specific brand models a little bit more difficult.

The ugly: Most massive online retailers will have only a few complete sleep apnea mask systems available. Why? These large companies may not prioritize products that technically should be prescription-only purchases because of the regulation and work needed to maintain the legality of these transactions. You may have better luck finding a complete sets of replacement parts that you can purchase separately—but it will cost more to do it that way.

In contrast, specialized online stores may have a wider selection of packages, but may not be as fast or efficient.

The bottom line: In the end, it doesn’t really matter where you buy your sleep apnea mask and PAP machine. What’s important is that you have a prescription. Why? For one thing, most reputable sellers will require one from you! Also, it’s needed for insurance purposes.

Which Is the Best Sleep Apnea Mask for You?

You need to know your sleep position and habits to find out the answer to this questions. On top of that, you should consider other things, such as facial hair or face shape.

Let’s go through the three types of sleep apnea masks quickly and talk about what kind of sleeper would benefit the most from using them.

Nasal masks are not bulky and have a better chance of maintaining its seal, regardless of sleeping position. This is ideal for those that toss and turn, or sleep on their side.

Nasal pillow masks are even more lightweight than nasal masks, and maintain an even better seal—as there’s less surface area to worry about. This is ideal for those that find other masks chafing. The design is also better for those with a face shape or facial hair that make air leaks more of an issue. New PAP therapy patients will love the freedom the nasal pillow masks allow.

Full face masks are generally the least popular because they’re thought of as the least comfortable and the most cumbersome. While we can’t contradict that, we will say that mouth breathers need this kind of sleep apnea mask—otherwise PAP therapy won’t work for them.

More than anything, a CPAP mask should be snug and comfortable. It should also be effective and as much as possible not a hindrance to the patient’s routine.

Note that the three types of masks are just the very top layer of customizations you can make. Consider your head or nostril size, too. Specific needs like a humidifier or perhaps replacement masks to cycle through properly while making sure you’re always using a clean one—keeping these in mind is important, too.