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For some with sleep apnea, patch proving good alternative to mask

The Provent Therapy device, which has gained steam since its 2008 FDA approval, consists of two disposable plugs held just inside the nostrils with hypoallergenic adhesive -- a much less bulky option than the often prescribed CPAP mask.

With more than 18 million American adults suffering from some form of sleep apnea, and the bulky CPAP masks being such a nuisance that many of those prescribed it simply don't use it, a small and disposable sleep apnea device approved by the Food and Drug Administration in 2008 is fast gaining steam.

The disposable Provent patch costs around $65 for a 30-day supply. Ventus Medical

Called Provent Therapy, the device is essentially a small patch consisting of one plug for each nostril that is held into place with hypoallergenic adhesive. The tech is simple: each plug provides enough air pressure to keep the airways open throughout the night.

This is a similar approach to Provent's larger cousin, the CPAP (Continuous Positive Airway Pressure) mask, which also uses pressure to prevent the airways from constricting. But each plug contains a tiny valve the size of a pinhole that, during the exhale, creates enough resistance to provide backpressure. This pressure dilates the muscles that typically collapse in patients with obstructive sleep apnea, causing the fits and starts that interrupt sleep.

One 2011 study of 250 patients with sleep apnea found that Provent users suffered far fewer apnea episodes over a three-month period than those given a placebo device, and 88 percent of participants self-reported adherence.

While the study, published in the journal Sleep, was funded by the plug's manufacturer Ventus Medical, it was randomized and double blind, involving 19 clinics across the U.S.

Unfortunately, the disposable plugs that appear to work so well for some are not the magic bullet for all. Those who typically breathe through their mouths, for instance, are not going to reap the same benefits of improved airflow, and the plugs are reported to be somewhat uncomfortable to breathe through, not to mention a nuisance for those with severe allergies, Dr. Meir Kryger, a professor at Yale Medical School and founder of the National Sleep Foundation who participated in the Provent study, tells The New York Times.

Also unfortunately, the device has yet to be covered by many insurance companies, though it is covered for military veterans. A 30-day supply, which Ventus says costs $65, is prohibitively expensive for some.

Ventus has reportedly shipped one million of the devices in the past year -- a four-fold increase over the half million it sent over the course of the two previous years. And this in spite of the out-of-pocket expense. If the trend continues, it may soon be covered, and the numbers sold just may skyrocket.