BiPAP vs. CPAP: What’s the Difference?

How These Sleep Apnea Therapies Differ

Continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) and BiPAP (or bi-level) therapy are both used to treat sleep apnea. CPAP is the most common and effective therapy, and it’s often recommended as a treatment option when you are diagnosed with obstructive sleep apnea.

BiPAP may be preferred in more severe cases of sleep apnea, or when another diagnosis such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is present. Both BiPAP and another therapy, called adaptive servo-ventilation (ASV) therapy, are used to treat central sleep apnea, which occurs when the brain temporarily stops sending signals to the respiratory muscles.

This article explains the differences between CPAP and BiPAP, as well as ASV. It provides information about various reasons for their use, as well as how BiPAP and CPAP machines work, their cost, and more.

3 Types of Sleep Apnea Therapy
Verywell / Ellen Lindner

CPAP Therapy

The standard treatment for obstructive sleep apnea is the use of a machine that provides support to keep your airway open while you are asleep. This can be accomplished with continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP).

In CPAP, a constant flow of pressurized room air is provided via a face mask. There are also portable travel CPAP devices available.

The pressure setting of this airflow is often determined by a doctor based on your needs. This may be evaluated as part of a sleep study or can be estimated based on your risk factors, such as your anatomy and weight.

An effective pressure setting is meant to prevent both apnea and snoring and should reduce the apnea-hypopnea index (AHI) below five, as well as improving the other symptoms associated with sleep apnea.

An associated type of therapy is AutoCPAP, or APAP, in which a range of pressures are provided by the device. If resistance in the upper airway (at the level of the soft palate or base of the tongue in the throat) is detected, the pressure delivered will self-adjust within a prescribed range. 

BiPAP or Bilevel Therapy

A similar therapy is called bilevel, or BiPAP, but it differs in important ways. BiPAP is an abbreviation trademarked by the manufacturer Respironics for bilevel positive airway pressure. (It is called VPAP by the other major manufacturer, ResMed.)

The “bilevel” component refers to the fact that there are in fact two pressures, which the machine is able to alternate between. This allows you to breathe in with higher pressure and breathe out against a slightly lower pressure.

This may help those who are struggling to acclimate to CPAP. It may improve air swallowing (called aerophagia). It may also help with claustrophobia. Bilevel may be required when pressures are higher to improve comfort, especially at PAP pressures that are 15 centimeters (cm) of water pressure or higher.

BiPAP vs. CPAP Machine

Aside from a label or different color, from the outside, the BiPAP machine may not look significantly different from a CPAP. It still requires the same tubing and face mask that is used in CPAP therapy. However, it can be more effective in select circumstances, such as those described above.

Do I Need CPAP or BiPAP?

People with the most common form of obstructive sleep apnea usually start treatment with CPAP or AutoCPAP. Bilevel, or BiPAP, is more often used to treat central sleep apnea, which is characterized by pauses in breathing without obstruction of the airway.

Whether or not you use CPAP or BiPAP for sleep apnea will likely depend on the results of a sleep study.

Central sleep apnea may occur more often in people who have had heart failure, a stroke, or in those who chronically use narcotic pain medications. It can sometimes be caused by CPAP itself, but this rarely persists beyond the first few months of use.

The BiPAP device may be set to compensate for these pauses in breathing by kicking in an extra breath as needed.

Some devices are quite sophisticated, varying the airflow that is delivered to compensate for respiratory and neuromuscular disorders that affect breathing as well. These disorders include chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), and other conditions.

Setting Options

Beyond CPAP and BiPAP, there are additional settings of the machines that can be ordered by your sleep specialist. Many machines, often with the prefix “Auto,” have an automatic feature that allows a range of pressures to be used.

Auto devices can be of both the CPAP or bilevel variety. The device is able to respond to subtle collapses in the airway and can turn up the pressure as needed during the night. This may be helpful if sleep apnea worsens due to changes in sleep position (such as lying on one’s back) or due to REM sleep causing increased events.

There is also a type of bilevel that can deliver timed breaths (often called bilevel ST). This can ensure that a minimum number of breaths per minute are occurring. This may be important in central sleep apnea.

Purpose Most common and effective treatment used for obstructive sleep apnea May be used to treat more severe sleep apnea, especially in people with central sleep apnea and/or underlying health issues Used to treat people with more complex sleep apnea issues, including central sleep apnea
Settings One setting as you breathe Two settings, one as you inhale and one as you exhale Monitors breathing and adjusts pressure automatically as needed
Cost $500-$1,500, depending on features $1,000–$2,000 $2,000 to $3,000 or more
Insurance Likely to be covered Likely to be covered, depending on diagnosis May or may not be covered

If you’re considering equipment needed to treat sleep apnea, keep in mind that related items (travel units, flexible tubing, filters) add to the costs and may not be covered by your insurance provider.

What Is ASV Therapy?

Finally, there is another sophisticated machine called auto or adaptive servo-ventilation (ASV) that has even more features to maintain normal breathing in sleep. It can vary the volume of air delivered as well as the speed at which the lungs are inflated and deflated, among other settings.

These devices are often reserved for people who need extra ventilatory support due to underlying neuromuscular, cardiac, or pulmonary diseases.

When Should I Switch From CPAP to BiPAP?

Some people move from CPAP treatment to BIPAP. If changes in your therapy are required, they can be arranged when your healthcare provider sees you for routine follow-up. It is sometimes necessary to arrange a titration study in which the various treatment options and settings can be explored in a controlled fashion.

A Word From Verywell

You don’t have to sort this out on your own. Your sleep specialist should be able to make the proper determination of your therapy needs based on the results of your sleep study and your assessment in the clinic. Discuss your options at your visit and be in close contact if you experience any difficulties with the treatment of your sleep apnea.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Do you use CPAP or BiPAP for sleep apnea?

    Both CPAP and BiPAP can be used to treat sleep apnea, depending on your specific needs. CPAP is most often used to treat obstructive sleep apnea. BiPAP is used to treat more severe cases of sleep apnea, often in people with central sleep apnea associated with other underlying health issues.

  • What's the difference in using BiPAP vs. CPAP with COVID-19?

    CPAP has been used successfully to treat people with COVID-19, both in and out of the intensive care unit (ICU). BiPAP may be used in more severe COVID-19 cases, as it offers more breathing support unless or until intubation is needed. BiPAP also may be a treatment endpoint for people who don’t want intubation.

4 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. National Library of Medicine: MedlinePlus. Central sleep apnea.

  2. Badr MS, Dingell JD, Javaheri S. Central sleep apnea: a brief review. Curr Pulmonol Rep. 2019;8(1):14-21. doi:10.1007/s13665-019-0221-z

  3. American Association of Sleep Technologists. BiPAP (Bilevel positive airway pressure) or CPAP therapy?

  4. Vaschetto R, Barone-Adesi F, Racca F, et al. Outcomes of COVID-19 patients treated with continuous positive airway pressure outside the intensive care unit. ERJ Open Res. 2021;7(1):00541-2020. doi:10.1183/23120541.00541-2020

Additional Reading

By Brandon Peters, MD
Brandon Peters, MD, is a board-certified neurologist and sleep medicine specialist.