a woman with sleeping with her window open, outside a wildfire is burning and smoke is coming in through the window but the woman's CPAP machine is blocking the smoke from reaching her

One Hidden Benefit of CPAP Machines: Filters Against Wildfire Smoke

I don’t know about you, but when I see the images of the California wildfires, I get all choked up.

Not just because they’re extremely sad and terrifying, but just thinking about what it must be like to breathe that air left my throat and nasal passages feeling raw and dry. My heart goes out to all those struggling through this historic season of burning in California.

Living in a state prone to wildfires

While I don’t live in California, I do live in another state that gets its own share of wildfires: Washington. They typically happen in the eastern half of the state, but even in the national rainforest which I live adjacent to on the west side, a few fires flare up every summer.

As of this writing, Washington firefighters are tackling 14 active wildfires affecting about 75,000 acres of land. Structures are threatened and evacuations are in effect for one fire, in particular, that’s currently blazing across more than 17,000 acres in the northeastern part of the state.

Often these fires are due to lightning strikes and frequently occur far away from populated areas.

Wildfires and air pollution

Keep in mind, though: you don’t have to live out in the boonies to experience pollution caused by wildfires. Microclimates, wind patterns, and other factors can greatly affect air quality, bringing in air filled with pollutants from fires burning miles and miles away.

A couple of years ago, we had a statewide wildfire emergency in Washington. Even in downtown Seattle, the air quality became extremely poor. At times, you couldn’t see any of the mountains which generally pop into the bright blue sky every summer. I remember getting on the ferry to cross the Puget Sound to Seattle and being completely unable to see the city on a sunny day because of the low brown haze.

And more than once, I wore a bandanna over my nose and mouth to go to the store because I literally couldn’t tolerate the air just walking from my front-row parking spot to the front doors.

I checked air quality apps on a day-to-day basis. We literally went camping in a cleaner air location for half a week just to escape the headaches and coughing we experienced at home.

But for me, the real “proof of concept” came when I went to clean my PAP machine.

CPAP cleaning fundamentals

I typically use CPAP wipes to clean my mask’s headgear and nasal cushion every day, then drop the contraption into another contraption, a PAP machine disinfecting system.

Weekly, I rinse out my hose and wash out the humidifying chamber using mild soap and warm water, letting it air dry.

And then, monthly, I swap out a fresh air filter for the one that can — and should — be replaced.

(All PAP machines are different; some have multiple filters you need to replace. Check your machine’s manual for how to replace, or in some cases, clean your machine’s air filters.)

Normally, I swap filters without noticing any difference. The old one doesn’t seem to show any signs of residue. I take this as a good sign my “room air” is generally clean. For some people who smoke or live with smokers, or reside in dusty locations or have pets that leave dander, the residue may be more obvious.

Check your filters!

That summer of wildfires in Washington, I swapped out my filter per my schedule and found the old one extremely dirty. I literally gasped when I took it out of the machine!

I usually sleep with my windows open on hot summer nights as I lived (then) in the woods. The shaded air is cool enough, and circulates enough, to keep my bedroom fresh. But keeping my window open basically let all the wildfire particulates in, as made apparent by the noticeable residue captured by my filter.

Suffice it to say that I changed my filter weekly for several weeks until the air quality returned to normal.

Other hidden benefits of PAP therapy

Much is made about the discomfort and inconvenience of using PAP therapy to treat obstructive sleep apnea (OSA). But there are hidden benefits as well, such as capturing wildfire pollution before it could enter my PAP machine to be inhaled by my lungs as I slept.

Other unexpected benefits I’ve enjoyed while using PAP include:

  • The elimination of postnasal drip, which I used to wake up with daily and which often led to respiratory infections, even serious ones like bronchitis and walking pneumonia.
  • A great reduction in acid reflux, often linked to OSA because of changes in intrathoracic pressure that can give rise, quite literally, to the contents of the stomach into the esophagus.

I hope everyone who uses PAP, who’s living in conditions where air pollution’s a problem, is checking those filters. It’s not only good for your health, but for the longevity of your machine.

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