Oxygen Therapy

Reviewed by: HU Medical Review Board | Last reviewed: February 2022 | Last updated: March 2022

Oxygen therapy is a type of treatment used by some people with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). It is sometimes called supplemental oxygen.1

COPD causes lung damage that can keep the lungs from being able to absorb enough oxygen. If the body does not have enough oxygen, it cannot function as well as it should. Oxygen therapy delivers an extra supply of oxygen into the body that can help improve symptoms of COPD. Not everyone with COPD needs oxygen therapy, but it is part of the treatment plan for many people.1,2

How can oxygen therapy help relieve COPD symptoms?

Oxygen therapy can help some people with COPD to feel better and be more active. Because it increases the amount of oxygen in the body, it can help to:2,3

When do people with COPD need oxygen therapy?

People with COPD may be prescribed oxygen therapy if the level of oxygen in their bloodstream is too low. Feeling breathless is not a sure way of telling that a person is not getting enough oxygen. This has to be done using a blood test to measure the level of oxygen. Doctors use blood-oxygen tests such as:2

  • Arterial blood gas test
  • Pulse oximetry test

The amount of oxygen a person needs, and how often it should be used, depends upon the results of the blood-oxygen tests. The amount of oxygen a person needs is called the oxygen flow rate. This describes the number of liters of oxygen that is delivered per minute. The amount a person needs during exercise or sleeping might be different than the amount they need while at rest.

Sometimes, people with COPD need short-term oxygen therapy to help improve blood oxygen levels that are too low because of a respiratory infection or COPD flare-up, for instance. In those cases, they may be able to stop oxygen therapy once they have recovered from the infection or flare-up. Some people with COPD may only need oxygen during certain times, like when they are being active or sleeping.

Other people with COPD may need to have long-term oxygen therapy. Long-term means that they need to receive oxygen for 15 to 24 hours every day. This is more common during the later stages of the disease.

People who need long-term oxygen therapy can use portable oxygen delivery units that allow them to be active and take part in many of their usual day-to-day activities. Doctors can help advise about activities that are safe to do while using oxygen.

How is the oxygen supplied?

Oxygen therapy can be carried out at home, or in a hospital, or other healthcare settings. Long-term oxygen therapy is more likely to take place in the person's home. There are different ways that oxygen can be delivered into a person's lungs, such as:1

  • Tubes in the nostrils (nasal cannula)
  • Face mask
  • A tube inserted into the trachea (windpipe)

A nasal cannula is the most common way to receive oxygen. A small tube carries oxygen from a container to 2 small plastic tubes that are placed in both nostrils. People who need a larger supply of oxygen may need to use a face mask. The mask covers the nose and mouth and is connected to a tube that attaches to the oxygen container. Some people require oxygen directly into the trachea through a small tube that is inserted by a doctor.

Many people on long-term oxygen therapy receive regular deliveries of oxygen to their homes. The oxygen can be supplied in different kinds of equipment, such as:1

  • Compressed oxygen gas
  • Liquid oxygen
  • Oxygen concentrators

Compressed oxygen is a gas that comes in metal cylinders of various sizes. This includes portable units that can be carried in a bag or wheeled around. Liquid oxygen is delivered in large containers from which small portable containers can be filled. Liquid oxygen turns into a gas when it flows out of the container.

Oxygen concentrators remove oxygen from the air by filtering out other gases. This means they do not need to be refilled. But because they depend on electricity to filter the air, people still need a backup supply of oxygen in a different kind of container.

What can people expect when they start oxygen therapy?

If a person is getting oxygen therapy at the hospital, doctors are there to make sure the right amount of oxygen is being delivered correctly. People who are starting oxygen therapy at home will have their equipment set up and shown to them by the oxygen equipment provider. They may also learn more about the therapy at a pulmonary rehabilitation program.

Pure oxygen can be a serious fire hazard. It is important for people to take steps to ensure they are safe. Some of the most important safety tips while using oxygen are:1

  • Never smoke or be around anyone who is smoking
  • Stay at least 5 feet away from any flame, such as a gas stove or candle
  • Never use oxygen therapy in a small or enclosed space

Are there any side effects of oxygen therapy?

Some people who use oxygen therapy may have side effects, including:1

  • Dry or bloody nose
  • Irritated skin around the cannula or mask
  • Tiredness or drowsiness
  • Morning headaches

People should talk to their doctor about any side effects they are experiencing. Sometimes these side effects can be relieved by:1

  • Changing the oxygen delivery equipment
  • Adjusting the amount of oxygen
  • Changing how often oxygen is used
  • Using a humidifier or nasal spray

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