Oxygen Therapy

Alternate Names

  • O2 therapy


Oxygen therapy is a medical treatment that provides extra oxygen to the tissues of the body through the lungs, a process known as respiration.

What is the information for this topic?

Oxygen is a colorless, odorless, tasteless gas that is essential for the body to survive. The heart relies on oxygen to beat and pump blood. If not enough oxygen is circulating in the blood, it becomes increasingly difficult for the heart muscle to pump. The air contains approximately 21 percent oxygen; normally, this is more than enough for an individual to maintain adequate oxygen in the blood just by breathing air through the lungs. However, some medical conditions result in a shortage of oxygen to the tissues of the body, for different reasons. These include:

  • asthma, a chronic disease causing intermittent narrowing of the airways
  • chronic bronchitis, with long-term irritation of the airways
  • anemia, or a low red blood cell count
  • pneumonia
  • pulmonary edema, a condition in which extra fluid accumulates in the lungs
  • congestive heart failure, a condition in which a weakened heart fails to pump enough blood to the body cells
  • pulmonary fibrosis, in which the lungs become scarred

In these cases, the shortage can be overcome by supplying oxygen through a tube or mask in higher concentration than is found in the air. As a person's underlying lung or heart condition worsens, he or she may require more oxygen at a higher liter flow. Oxygen therapy itself, if used correctly, does not cause further lung damage. Oxygen is also used to treat victims of smoke inhalation. It helps reduce the spasms and swelling that smoke causes in the lungs. Mountain climbers and pilots use supplemental oxygen when they are at heights where there is not enough oxygen in the atmosphere. In the hospital, oxygen is used during and after surgery to give an individual some margin of reserve in case his or her breathing or circulation should be interrupted in some way as a result of the anesthesia or surgery. There are several ways to give oxygen. A compressed gas cylinder, called an oxygen tank, is the most commonly used device. Oxygen at home is also given through a special unit called an oxygen concentrator. This device removes most of another gas, nitrogen, from the air, which makes the oxygen more concentrated. The oxygen is delivered to the person from the oxygen tank or concentrator through tubing attached to a mask, a tent, or a nasal cannula. A nasal cannula is tubing that is placed a short distance into each nostril. The way oxygen is given depends on the person's age of the person and the condition being treated. Usually adults and older children use a nasal cannula. Children may need to use an oxygen mask or tent. Oxygen is very drying to the tissues of the body, especially the nose. Distilled water is used to add moisture to the oxygen. The moisture protects the delicate lining of the nose. Oxygen therapy can be given at home. Someone who has asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), or congestive heart failure may use oxygen at home. One of the goals of home oxygen therapy is to lessen the need for emergency department visits and hospital stays. The proven benefits include longer survival, fewer hospitalizations, and better quality of life. The person is taught how to use the oxygen tank, how to change the tubing, and when the oxygen needs to be used. The cost of oxygen therapy in the home ranges from $300 to $500 a month. Medicare covers about 80% of the cost if certain requirements are met. Private insurance plans also cover most of the cost of oxygen therapy. Hyperbaric oxygen (HBO) is another form of oxygen therapy, used in more extreme clinical situations. In this treatment, compressed oxygen is given at a high level of pressure. The person is placed inside a special pressure chamber, a large tube with clear glass on the top and sides. The chamber is sealed and pressurized. The person then breathes 100% oxygen given at a pressure more than 1 1/2 times the normal atmospheric pressure. HBO is used to treat many conditions, including:

  • carbon monoxide poisoning
  • gangrene, or tissue death and infection
  • burns
  • infections
  • some wounds that will not heal
  • severe smoke inhalation
  • decompression sickness

Oxygen therapy is an essential treatment in many conditions. However, because any flammable substance will ignite much more easily in the presence of concentrated oxygen, careful precautions must be taken when it is in use. Electrical equipment, such as heating pads, radios, and hair dryers, should be kept away from the area. No one should smoke where oxygen is being used. Any combustible material, such as alcohol, perfumes, and propane, must be kept away from oxygen tanks.