How to use your CPAP machine when traveling

One of the most common excuses for not wanting to use CPAP is that “I travel a lot.” Even after I explain that many people travel just fine with their CPAP machines, some people are stll reluctant.

With advances in technology and increased awareness by the lay public, government officials and medical professionals about the importance of using CPAP for obstructive sleep apnea, traveling with CPAP, although initially a challenge, can be done with relative ease. People use CPAP on planes, and even go camping with it. With the FAA’s recent ruling and instructions on carrying and using CPAP on airlines, it’s become even easier to travel with CPAP machine. I know there are various types of PAP devices, but for the sake of simplicity, I’ll call these devices the generic name, CPAP.

Flying with your CPAP

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) recently ruled that airline passengers must be allowed to use respiratory assistive devices, such as a CPAP machine (Nondiscrimination on the Basis of Disability in Air Travel – May 13, 2009). However, don’t think that you’ll just breeze by security checkpoints at the airport. Here are some common tips that are recommended when you fly with your CPAP machine:

1. Never check your CPAP machine.

2. Always have with you a prescription for your CPAP machine and your latest sleep study. You never know if your unit gets lost or stolen, or breaks down.

3. Attach a medical equipment tag, identifying the contents as such.

4. Let the TSA security agent know that you have a CPAP machine. Remove it from the back and have it scanned separately.

5. Request that security agents change gloves and wipe down the table before inspecting your machine. Wrap your device in a clear bag while being scanned to prevent contamination with germs and other chemicals.

6. Keep a record of the model and serial number in hand, just in case.

7. If you’re going to use your CPAP machine in-flight, check beforehand if there’s an outlet next to your seat, and if you have the right adaptor.

8. If the flight attendant says something about your CPAP being another carry-on, let him or her know that it’s a CPAP machine and under the Americans with Disability Act, it’s not counted as an added carry-on.

9. Consider having your doctor give you a letter describing the need for your CPAP machine.

10. Most CPAP units will automatically convert to the correct local voltage. Check with your instruction manual or manufacturer to confirm this. You may, however, need a plug adaptor, as well as an extension cord, in case your outlet is far away.

Tips on water

Many people are so focused on the logistics of their machines, that sometimes they forget about distilled water. Make sure you have plenty of distilled water available if you’re going to use it on the plane, or at your final destination.

If you’re not going to use your CPAP device on the plane, then make sure you empty and dry the water chamber before flying. If you’re planning on using your CPAP device on-board, there are two options to be able to pass large amounts of fluids past TSA security checkpoints: Have your doctor prescribe distilled water in a pharmaceutical grade bottle. A 500 mL bottle should hold about 16 oz. Another option is to purchase papFLASK, which is designed to pass through security checkpoints with ease.

For whatever reason you don’t have distilled water available, using bottled or even tap water is OK, but try to find distilled water as soon as reasonably possible. Mineral deposits in tap water can build up within the PAP machine and can cause damage if it continues long-term.

Camping or backing up with CPAP

For travel to areas that don’t have electricity, or in case you have a blackout, there are numerous battery options available. Each manufacturer will usually have a back up battery recommendations and adapters.

For more extended periods, various people have written about using a 12 volt deep cycle marine battery with a sine wave inverter. There are numerous other battery options so do your research. Different manufacturers have different voltage needs, so also check with your manufacturer. Since a humidifier uses a lot of energy, most people recommend not using the humidifier if you’re only camping for a few days. There’s lots more information about batteries in CPAP support sites such as sleepguide.com, cpaptalk.com, talkaboutsleep.com, or apneasupport.com.

Have a backup plan

Some patients carry around their oral appliances with them whenever they travel, either using it in place of their CPAP machines or just in case the device breaks. Some people use both the oral appliance and their CPAP machines simultaneously. If you’ve never tried an oral appliance and you’re interested in an alternative option, it may be worth giving it a try now before you need to travel for long extended periods.

No more excuses

With advances in technology and more acceptance by the medical community as well as the lay public, there’s basically no reason (unless it’s psychological) you can’t travel with a CPAP machine. With knowledge and some flexibility and creativity, anyone can travel with CPAP, even in the more remote areas of the world. There have even been descriptions of solar power being used to recharge batteries used for CPAP. If you travel frequently to the same location, consider purchasing a second unit. Prices for middle of the road CPAP models are in the $300 to $700 range.

The first major challenge is in finding a way to make CPAP work for you. The second major challenge is in un-tethering your machine from your bedroom. Many people are living vibrant and normal lives, despite having to use their CPAP machines while traveling. Or is it because they are using their CPAP machines regularly while traveling? You decide.

Steven Y. Park is Clinical Assistant Professor of Otolaryngology at the New York Eye & Ear Infirmary, and author of the book, Sleep, Interrupted: A Physician Reveals The #1 Reason Why So Many Of Us Are Sick And Tired.

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  • http://thewiredpractice.blogspot.com Mike Koriwchak MD

    Excellent article. I have traveled and camped with my CPAP a fair amount and still learned a great deal. Very nice. MK

  • Sandra

    Thanks for the suggestions. I just got back from my first trip with my CPAP. I had no problems whatsoever. I had been told to scan it separately from its bag and TSA seemed quite familiar with what to do with it. Flight attendants and gate agents did not say a word about my “extra” carry on. It worked great and allowed me to maintain my energy levels while on vacation.

    One other suggestion I would add for people traveling with CPAP. Take a power bar and extension cord. I put them in the bag with the CPAP. At the hotel, the plugs by the bed were taken up by the lamp and the clock. Thanks to my power bar, it was easy to set my CPAP up on the dresser without having to give up the lamp or clock. The power bar did not even raise an eyebrow with TSA.

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