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O2 Therapy

What Is Oxygen Therapy?

Oxygen therapy is a treatment that provides you with extra oxygen, a gas that your body needs to
work well. Normally, your lungs absorb oxygen from the air. However, some diseases and
conditions can prevent you from getting enough oxygen.
Oxygen therapy may help you function better and be more active. Oxygen is supplied in a metal
cylinder or other container. It flows through a tube and is delivered to your lungs in one of the
following ways:
Through a nasal cannula, which consists of two small plastic tubes, or prongs, that are
placed in both nostrils.
Through a face mask, which fits over your nose and mouth.
Through a small tube inserted into your windpipe through the front of your neck. Your
doctor will use a needle or small incision (cut) to place the tube. Oxygen delivered this
way is called transtracheal oxygen therapy.
Oxygen therapy can be done in a hospital, another medical setting, or at home. If you need
oxygen therapy for a chronic (ongoing) disease or condition, you might receive home oxygen
To learn how oxygen therapy works, it helps to understand how your respiratory system works.
This system is a group of organs and tissues that help you breathe. The respiratory system
includes the airways and lungs.
The airways carry oxygen-rich air to your lungs. They also carry carbon dioxide (a waste gas)
out of your lungs.
Air enters your body through your nose or mouth, which moistens and warms the air. The air
then travels through your voice box and down your windpipe. The windpipe divides into two
tubes called bronchi that enter your lungs.
Within your lungs, your bronchi branch into thousands of smaller, thinner tubes called
bronchioles (BRONG-ke-ols). These tubes end in bunches of tiny round air sacs called alveoli
Each of the air sacs is covered in a mesh of tiny blood vessels called capillaries (KAP-ih-lare-
ees). The capillaries connect to a network of arteries and veins that move blood throughout your
When air reaches the air sacs, the oxygen in the air passes through the air sac walls into the blood
in the capillaries.
The oxygen-rich blood then travels to the heart through the pulmonary vein and its branches. The
heart pumps the oxygen-rich blood to your organs. (For more information, go to the Health
Topics How the Lungs Work article.)
Certain acute (short-term) and chronic (ongoing) diseases and conditions can affect the transfer
of oxygen from the alveoli into the blood. Examples include pneumonia (nu-MO-ne-ah) and
COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease).
Your doctor will decide whether you need oxygen therapy based on the results of tests, such as
an arterial blood gas test and a pulse oximetry test. These tests measure how much oxygen is in
your blood. A low oxygen level is a sign that you need oxygen therapy.
Oxygen is considered a medicine, so your doctor must prescribe it.
Oxygen therapy helps many people function better and be more active. It also may help:
Decrease shortness of breath and fatigue (tiredness)
Improve sleep in some people who have sleep-related breathing disorders
Increase the lifespan of some people who have COPD
Although you may need oxygen therapy long term, it doesn't have to limit your daily routine.
Portable oxygen units can make it easier for you to move around and do many daily activities.
Talk with your doctor if you have questions about whether certain activities are safe for you.
A home equipment provider will work with you to make sure you have the supplies and
equipment you need. Trained staff also will show you how to use the equipment correctly and
Oxygen therapy generally is safe, but it can pose a fire hazard. To use your oxygen safely, follow
the instructions you receive from your home equipment provider.
Who Needs Oxygen Therapy?
Your doctor may recommend oxygen therapy if you have a low blood oxygen level. Normally,
your lungs absorb oxygen from the air and transfer it into your bloodstream.
Some acute (short-term) and chronic (ongoing) diseases and conditions can prevent you from
getting enough oxygen.
Acute Diseases and Conditions
You may receive oxygen therapy if you're in the hospital for a serious condition that prevents
you from getting enough oxygen. Once you've recovered from the condition, the oxygen will
likely be stopped.
Some diseases and conditions that may require short-term oxygen therapy are:
Severe pneumonia. Pneumonia is an infection in one or both of the lungs. If severe, the
infection causes your lungs' air sacs to become very inflamed. This prevents the air sacs
from moving enough oxygen into your blood.
Severe asthma attack. Asthma is a lung disease that inflames and narrows the airways.
Most people who have asthma, including many children, can safely manage their
symptoms. But if you have a severe asthma attack, you may need hospital care that
includes oxygen therapy.
Respiratory distress syndrome (RDS) or bronchopulmonary dysplasia (BPD) in
premature babies. Premature babies may develop one or both of these serious lung
conditions. As part of their treatment, they may receive extra oxygen through a nasal
continuous positive airway pressure (NCPAP) machine or a ventilator (VEN-til-a-tor), or
through a tube in the nose.
Chronic Diseases and Conditions
Long-term home oxygen therapy might be used to treat some diseases and conditions, such as:
COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease). This is a progressive disease in which
damage to the air sacs prevents them from moving enough oxygen into the bloodstream.
"Progressive" means the disease gets worse over time.
Late-stage heart failure. This is a condition in which the heart can't pump enough oxygen-
rich blood to meet the body's needs.
Cystic fibrosis (CF). CF is an inherited disease of the secretory glands, including the
glands that make mucus and sweat. People who have CF have thick, sticky mucus that
collects in their airways. The mucus makes it easy for bacteria to grow. This leads to
repeated, serious lung infections. Over time, these infections can severely damage the
Sleep-related breathing disorders that lead to low levels of oxygen in the blood during
sleep, such as sleep apnea.
How Does Oxygen Therapy Work?
Oxygen therapy provides you with extra oxygen, a gas that your body needs to work well.
Oxygen comes in different forms and can be delivered to your lungs in several ways.
Oxygen Therapy Systems
Oxygen is supplied in three forms: as compressed gas, as liquid, or as a concentrated form taken
from the air.
Compressed oxygen gas is stored under pressure in metal cylinders. The cylinders come in many
sizes. Some of the cylinders are small enough to carry around. You can put one on a small
wheeled cart or in a shoulder bag or backpack.
Liquid oxygen is very cold. When released from its container, the liquid becomes gas. Liquid
oxygen is delivered to your home in a large container. From this container, smaller, portable
units can be filled.
The advantage of liquid oxygen is that the storage units need less space than compressed or
concentrated oxygen. However, liquid oxygen costs more than the other forms of oxygen. Also,
it evaporates easily, so it doesn't last for a long time.
Oxygen concentrators filter out other gases in the air and store only oxygen. Oxygen
concentrators come in several sizes, including portable units.
Oxygen concentrators cost less than the other oxygen therapy systems. One reason is because
they don't require oxygen refills. However, oxygen concentrators are powered by electricity.
Thus, you'll need a backup supply of oxygen in case of a power outage.
What To Expect Before Oxygen Therapy
During an emergencysuch as a serious accident, possible heart attack, or other life-threatening
eventyou might be started on oxygen therapy right away.
Otherwise, your doctor will decide whether you need oxygen therapy based on test results. An
arterial blood gas test and a pulse oximetry test can measure the amount of oxygen in your blood.
For an arterial blood gas test, a small needle is inserted into an artery, usually in your wrist. A
sample of blood is taken from the artery. The sample is then sent to a laboratory, where its
oxygen level is measured.
For a pulse oximetry test, a small sensor is attached to your fingertip or toe. The sensor uses light
to estimate how much oxygen is in your blood.
If the tests show that your blood oxygen level is low, your doctor may prescribe oxygen therapy.
In the prescription, your doctor will include the number of liters of oxygen per minute that you
need (oxygen flow rate). He or she also will include how often you need to use the oxygen
(frequency of use).
Frequency of use includes when and for how long you should use the oxygen. Depending on
your condition and blood oxygen level, you may need oxygen only at certain times, such as
during sleep or while exercising.
If your doctor prescribes home oxygen therapy, he or she can help you find a home equipment
provider. The provider will give you the equipment and other supplies you need.
What To Expect During Oxygen Therapy
During an emergencysuch as a serious accident, possible heart attack, or other life-threatening
eventyou might be started on oxygen therapy right away.
While you're in the hospital, your doctor will check on you to make sure you're getting the right
amount of oxygen. Nurses or respiratory therapists also may assist with the oxygen therapy.
If you're having oxygen therapy at home, a home equipment provider will help you set up the
oxygen therapy equipment at your house.
Trained staff will show you how to use and take care of the equipment. They'll supply the
oxygen and teach you how to safely handle it.
Because oxygen poses a fire risk, you'll need to take certain safety steps. Oxygen isn't explosive,
but it can worsen a fire. In the presence of oxygen, a small fire can quickly get out of control.
Also, the cylinder that compressed oxygen gas comes in can explode if it's exposed to heat.
Your home equipment provider will give you a complete list of safety steps that you'll need to
follow at home and in public. For example, while on oxygen, you should:
Never smoke or be around people who are smoking
Never use paint thinners, cleaning fluids, gasoline, aerosol sprays, and other flammable
Stay at least 5 feet away from gas stoves, candles, and other heat sources
When you're not using the oxygen, keep it in a large, airy room. Never store compressed oxygen
gas cylinders and liquid oxygen containers in small, enclosed places, such as in closets, behind
curtains, or under clothes.
Oxygen containers let off small amounts of oxygen. These small amounts can build up to
harmful levels if they're allowed to escape into small spaces.