Tips for Choosing the Right Portable Supplemental Oxygen Delivery System for You

So, your doctor has decided your breathing status requires supplemental oxygen. This is good news, because easier breathing is ahead for you, not to mention improved energy and sleep. But there are a few challenges involved with adding oxygen to your treatment plan too. Finding the right supplemental oxygen delivery system for you can help smooth the way. This is especially true when we are talking about a portable oxygen delivery system.

Why you might need supplemental oxygen for COPD

Not every person who has COPD needs supplemental oxygen, particularly in the earlier stages, when symptoms are less severe. But, as the disease progresses and your lungs stop working as well, oxygen can help some people feel better.1 Here are a few of the ways:

  • Decrease your shortness of breath or feelings of breathlessness
  • Help you feel less tired or worn out
  • Sleep better
  • Have more energy to be active

In some cases, supplemental oxygen may even slow down the progression of COPD for a time.

Shortness of breath is not the most reliable measure of whether you need supplemental oxygen. Your doctor will need to do a blood test called arterial blood gases to know for sure if the levels of oxygen in your blood and your body are low.

Types of supplemental oxygen delivery systems

There are 3 basic types of home oxygen delivery systems:1

  • Gas, in compressed form, via the large metal cylindrical tanks
  • Liquid, via a shorter barrel-shaped tank that converts the liquid to gas as it is released
  • Concentrator, that is electrically-powered and converts room air to oxygen gas

Which of these systems is the right one for you can depend on a number of factors including your health status, convenience, insurance and so on. Work with your doctor and your oxygen supplier to find the right fit for you.

Most people use tubing with 2 prongs that fit in their nose to get the oxygen from the device to your lungs. But a mask that fits over your nose and mouth may also be used in some cases. Your doctor will decide how much oxygen you need. This is expressed as a flow rate of liters per minute (LPM).  Most people start out at 2 to 4 LPM. But people with more severe COPD may have higher flow rates.

Your doctor may tell you to only use the oxygen when you feel breathless or at certain times of the day. This might be when you're more active or when you lie down to go to sleep. Other people might need to use the oxygen continuously, in other words, all the time.

Choosing the right portable oxygen delivery system

What I really want to discuss today is how to choose the right portable oxygen delivery system for your needs and your lifestyle. It might be different than the home system you choose.

If you're on continuous oxygen at home, it might seem obvious that when you leave your home, even for short periods, you need to bring portable oxygen with you. However, this doesn't always happen. And when people with COPD only use supplemental oxygen "as needed," it is even more likely that the need for portable oxygen might be overlooked or neglected.

Remember though that when you leave your home, your need for oxygen will likely increase. This could be due to the extra energy needs you encounter due to movement, climbing in and out of cars, doing activities you're not used to and so on. You may also feel stressed and worried when you leave the comfort of your own home. That can increase your breathlessness as well.

So, if you use oxygen at home, even just sometimes, chances are, you'll also need a portable system to use when you leave your home.

Your options for portable oxygen

Things you might look for in a portable oxygen delivery system include:

  • A device that is small and lightweight, or at least easy to transport
  • A system that can provide the flow rate you need, even if it's high
  • Enough oxygen to last a long time, so that it doesn't run out during an outing
  • A system that insurance covers, or alternatively, is affordable

Each of those "wants" can be hard to deliver, no matter what supplier you use or what device you choose. I remember my mother really struggled with this as her COPD got worse and she needed higher levels of oxygen. First of all, she was of slight stature and lugging around any type of portable oxygen was tough on her. Second, her tank would run out after only a couple of hours if she turned her flow rate up very high.

Just as with home oxygen delivery systems, portable systems come in 3 basic forms:2

  • Gas: Small, bullet-shaped cylinders that can be transported on wheeled carts
  • Liquid: Small portable tanks that are filled from your larger home liquid oxygen tank; usually carried in a bag that can be slung over a shoulder or on your back
  • Battery-powered concentrator: Converts environmental air to oxygen, wheeled

Pros and cons of each type

As you can imagine, each of these have different pros and cons. And those pros and cons may not be the same for each person.

For instance, portable concentrators are often lightweight and can supply oxygen for long periods, but are expensive to own. They can be rented, however, which makes them a great choice for traveling. They also do need to be plugged in regularly or have spare batteries.

Portable liquid tanks can be hard to learn how to fill correctly, and do not work well with high flow rate needs. They also can run out quickly. Also, Medicare and other insurances have become less willing to pay for them.3

The compressed gas cylinders can be heavy and will need to resupplied by your oxygen company regularly.

Before you think about purchasing or even renting a portable oxygen delivery system, be sure you discuss your needs thoroughly with both your doctor and your oxygen supplier.

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This article represents the opinions, thoughts, and experiences of the author; none of this content has been paid for by any advertiser. The COPD.net team does not recommend or endorse any products or treatments discussed herein. Learn more about how we maintain editorial integrity here.

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