The efficacy of administering continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) by face mask was evaluated in 40 consecutive patients treated with 10 cm of water pressure or greater. Thirty-five patients were treated for progressive hypoxemia with all patients improving their PaO2/FIO2 ratio within the first hour of therapy. Oxygen delivery, when measured, also improved in each patient, although five patients ultimately required endotracheal intubation and higher CPAP levels to further improve their arterial hypoxemia. Five other patients were treated for atelectasis unresponsive to the usual therapeutic measures, with three patients demonstrating roentgenographic improvement. Face mask CPAP proved to be a safe and effective method for treating hypoxemia associated with early progressive respiratory distress in alert, spontaneously breathing patients.