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What is Oxygen Therapy? (O2 Therapy)

oxygen therapy, o2 therapyOxygen therapy, sometimes referred to as O2 therapy, is a type of medical intervention that provides extra oxygen, one of the most abundant gases in the universe, to people who are suffering from sudden or long-term health conditions.

The air we breathe contains approximately 21% oxygen. Although this might be sufficient for people with healthy lungs, it may not be enough for people with chronic lung conditions like COPD. That’s where oxygen therapy (O2 therapy) comes in.

Who Needs Oxygen Therapy?

Many people believe that shortness of breath is the qualifying factor that gives rise to them requiring supplemental oxygen. This is not necessarily true. Although many people who are short of breath do require therapy, additional criteria must be met before a doctor can justify writing a prescription.

Before being selected for therapy, your doctor will order an arterial blood gas (ABG) study or conduct a pulse oximetry test to measure the amount of oxygen in your blood. Generally speaking, medical oxygen is required if your blood oxygen level is less than or equal to 55 mg Hg or your oxygen saturation level is 88% or lower. Once your doctor determines that your blood oxygen levels are low, she may recommend that you begin therapy.

How Many Hours a Day Must You Use Oxygen Therapy?

The amount of time you use therapy will be based on your individual needs and determined by your doctor. The good news is that using it for more than 15 hours a day increases survival in some patients.1 Oxygen has many more benefits – both short and long term – in addition to increasing life expectancy. To learn more about the many ways supplemental oxygen can benefit you read Portable Oxygen Benefits.

Are There Any Side Effects Associated with Supplemental Oxygen?

When used correctly, it is both safe and effective. Like any prescription drug, however, side effects may occur. The following includes the most commonly reported side effects associated with supplemental oxygen and oxygen therapy equipment:

  • Nasal dryness – Supplemental oxygen can have a drying effect on your entire respiratory tract starting with your nose and nasal passages. Using a moisturizing product such as AYR Saline Nasal Mist can help lubricate your nasal passages making the therapy more comfortable. 
  • Skin irritation – Given that the prongs of the nasal cannula rest just inside the nares, it’s not uncommon for the skin in that area to become red and irritated. Applying AYR Nasal Gel in and around the nasal openings may help soothe this highly sensitive area, providing protection against skin breakdown. 
  • Risk of fire – Although oxygen is not flammable in and of itself, it supports combustion meaning that things that burn more readily in its presence. Never smoke or allow anyone to smoke while using supplemental oxygen. Avoid using your oxygen near an open flame or others sources of heat such as an electric stove. Steer clear of personal care products that contain petroleum.
  • Suppression of the drive to breathe – The National Heart Lung and Blood Institute reports that this type of therapy may suppress the drive to breathe in a select group of patients. This can generally be managed by adjusting your oxygen flow rate.2 That said, it’s important that you always follow your doctor’s orders regarding your oxygen prescription. Never increase your oxygen dose without first checking with your health care provider. 

Oxygen therapy, when used as prescribed, can give you the energy you need to function better and be more physically active. Additionally, a portable oxygen concentrator like the Inogen One makes it easy for you to maintain your independence so you can either keep up with your daily routine around the house or travel about town as you see fit.

Author: Deborah Leader RN, BSN, PHN

1 Stoller, James K. MD, MS, FCCP et. al. Oxygen Therapy for Patients With COPD: Current Evidence and the Long-Term Oxygen Treatment Trial. Chest. 2010 July; 138(1): 179–187. doi: 10.1378/chest.09-2555. PMCID: PMC2897694.
2 The National Heart Lung and Blood Institute. What are the risks of oxygen therapy? February 24, 2012.


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