Image: CPAP machine
Fisher & Paykel
For people with severe obstructive sleep apnea, a Continuous Positive Airway Pressure device — known as CPAP machine — can be a lifesaving treatment. 
By JoNel Aleccia Health writer
updated 3/20/2008 9:39:04 PM ET 2008-03-21T01:39:04

Babbett Peterson thought there was nothing less sexy than her husband’s snoring — until he brought home the cure.

The 47-year-old Trabuco Canyon, Calif., woman took one look at the plastic face mask, the long tubing and the whirring motor that ran all night and decided there were worse things than a few snuffles and snorts.

As far as she was concerned, the Continuous Positive Airway Pressure machine — known as a CPAP — was a threat to her 22-year marriage.

“Things were great in the bedroom,” Peterson said. “Then there was this thing strapped to his head.”

Peterson and her husband, Chris, a 47-year-old engineer, are among growing numbers of couples whose romantic lives have been derailed by sleep problems — or their solutions.

Bedtime troubles send three in 10 couples to separate rooms, according to a poll by the National Sleep Foundation, a nonprofit agency. About a quarter of people with partners and 10 percent of singles said sleep problems left them too tired for sex.

Snoring is the most obvious interference, sleep experts say, but some users contend that the most commonly prescribed cure — the CPAP machine — can put an even bigger damper on libido.

“It’s a huge emotional loss,” said Peterson, who works as an executive assistant. “I am a cuddler. I felt like I couldn’t touch him.”

Peterson’s opinion isn’t the most popular view in the online support group at, the Web site aimed at people who suffer from the serious sleep disorder that advocates say involves so much more than snoring.

People with obstructive sleep apnea have a problem that causes their airways to collapse during sleep, cutting off breathing sometimes dozens — or even hundreds — of time a night. Because they awake over and over, they’re never fully rested and often wind up with the chronic, life-threatening consequences of extended sleep deprivation.

Compared to the possibility of high blood pressure, heart disease and stroke, looking less sexy at bedtime is a minor concern, said Barbara Ruggiero, who coordinates the southern Nevada chapter of the AWAKE support group run by the American Sleep Apnea Association.

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“I couldn’t have cared less,” said Ruggiero, 49, a married mother of two from Las Vegas who started using a CPAP nearly three years ago. “It’s not just the snoring; people do die from sleep apnea.”

But while CPAP users are grateful for the treatment, dozens of posts on the popular apea Web sites reveal some also are worried about the social consequences of the cure.

“I am having a hard time seeing an educated, attractive man looking for an over-weight single mother (2 year old girl) who also has the joy of wearing a full face mask to bed,” one 27-year-old woman wrote.

“It’s a very big thing,” acknowledges Edward Grandi, executive director of the sleep apnea association that counts 10,000 registered members in its ranks. “We hear that a big challenge is having somebody that’s coming to bed with all these accoutrements as opposed to just their jammies.”

Like sleeping with Darth Vader
And the challenge is growing with the number of sleep apnea sufferers. An estimated 4 percent of men and 2 percent of women between the ages of 30 and 60 in the United States suffer from severe sleep apnea, Grandi said.

That’s at least 18 million Americans who shuffle through life in a sleep-deprived haze. Only about 10 percent of sufferers are diagnosed, but the most common prescription is a CPAP.

Still, less than half of those sent home with a CPAP wind up using it, experts said. It’s easy to see why. The machine works by blowing a stream of air down a plastic tube and through a plastic mask, using the pressure to keep airways open.

Even the most streamlined models can’t hide the Darth Vader-like effect of slipping on the device and flipping the switch, acknowledged Dr. William Orr, a sleep expert and president of the Lynn Health Science Institute at the Oklahoma University Health Sciences Center.

“It’s like sleeping with a vacuum cleaner strapped to your nose,” he said. “You wouldn’t go around dating somebody and put this thing on and say, ‘Hey, look what I’ve got.’”

While CPAP wearers complain about claustrophobia, inconvenience and the weird effect of being plugged into the wall all night, their partners have other issues.

The noise of the motor can be annoying, like leaving a blow-dryer on for hours, although some users insist the new models are no louder than a large fan or a refrigerator. The CPAP’s steady stream of exhaled air also can bother partners who suddenly feel like they’re sleeping in a wind tunnel.

After 46 years of marriage, Jim and Ann Hurd of Colorado Springs, Colo., had to stop cuddling because of her CPAP machine.

“My husband and I were snugglers all night long,” said Ann Hurd, 66. “But he doesn’t like the cold air blowing on him.”

And there’s no question it’s hard to feel seductive while wearing the thing. Vern Hulse, 66, of Ririe, Idaho, has worn a CPAP for seven years, so when his wife, Betty, 63, got one last fall, she didn’t mind.

“But if I wore one and he didn’t, I might have been a little vain,” said Betty Hulse. “If I were a young woman in my 20s and I was alone, I would wear it, but if I had an overnight visitor, there’s no way.”

Despite those obstacles, CPAP users and sleep experts said the benefits of the machine far outweigh the impositions on intimacy.

‘Most unromantic device ever’
Sleep-deprived people are not good partners, noted Rosalind Cartwright, chairman of the of the psychology department at Rush University and founder of the school’s sleep disorders center. She calls the CPAP "the most unromantic device ever," but says using the machine or an oral applicance can rescue a troubled marriage.

“You don't want somebody to go untreated," she said. "When people are sleepy, they can keep up their work role, but their husband role, their parenting role, their love role, they can’t keep it up."

That’s often true in a sexual sense as well. In addition to life-threatening health problems and psychological symptoms, people with untreated sleep apnea often suffer from impotence and other disorders.

Unexpected perks
For Reid Johnson, a 28-year-old salesman from Charleston, S.C., using the CPAP caused some funny moments with college girlfriends, but also some unexpected benefits.

“The relief of being able to sleep and have energy again was so great that I did not care what anyone thought,” Johnson said. “And, after the mask my libido unquestionably went up. I had energy again and was not always sick.”

Now married, Johnson said his CPAP doesn’t hamper his sex life. His wife, Christina, even nicknamed the device “Snuffalufagus,” he said.

Most CPAP users say they’re as matter-of-fact about the device as anyone who needs crutches, prosthetics or other aid for a serious medical condition — and that they expect romantic partners to be the same.

“I’ve never been self-conscious about it,” said Vicki Thon, a 50-year-old single mom who has balanced CPAP use and an active social life for 11 years. “I say, ‘This is what I need to be healthy.’”

For couples who can’t tolerate the device, there are a few options. Chris Peterson, for instance, lost 20 pounds, decreased his snoring — and ditched the machine, much to his wife’s delight.

“We got our life back,” Babbett Peterson said.

When that’s not possible, CPAP users have to cultivate a sense of humor — and a practical view, said Grandi, the apnea association director.

“No, it’s not sexy, but I don’t think snoring is sexy,” he said. “And, you know, you don’t have to do it with the mask on.”

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