Home oxygen therapy

Key points about home oxygen therapy

  • Home oxygen therapy involves using a small portable machine to breathe in air that has more oxygen in it than normal. 
  • It's used to increase the amount of oxygen in the lungs and bloodstream, in order to prevent heart or brain damage.
Man wearing oxygen mask at home
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Oxygen therapy may be prescribed for people who have a heart or lung condition that causes low oxygen levels in their blood (hypoxia). Low oxygen can make you feel breathless and tired, may cause fluid to build up around your ankles (oedema) and your lips may turn blue. If left untreated, low blood oxygen can lead to heart and brain damage.

Oxygen therapy can help increase the amount of oxygen in your blood and can help relieve symptoms of a number of health conditions, including:

  • COPD – a long-term lung condition that causes cough and shortness of breath, most commonly caused by smoking.
  • Asthma that is severe and difficult to control
  • Cystic fibrosis – an inherited condition that causes the lungs to produce a thick, sticky mucous making breathing difficult
  • Heart failure – when the heart fails to pump blood around the body correctly
  • Pulmonary hypertension – high blood pressure inside the arteries to the lungs which causes damage to the right-hand side of the heart.

If your doctor thinks that you might have low oxygen levels, they will refer you to a clinical specialist who will assess whether home oxygen therapy is right for you. You will be given a blood test to check your blood oxygen levels. You may also need some other tests such as a chest X-ray or ECG.

Not everyone with damaged lungs needs extra oxygen and while oxygen therapy can provide relief from breathlessness, it is not a cure for shortness of breath.

You breathe in oxygen through a mask that is connected via plastic tubing to a concentrator. A concentrator is a machine that takes oxygen from the air and concentrates it into the oxygen-dense air that you then breathe in. It does not affect the quality of the air for others around you.

The concentrator runs on electricity and can be noisy. Many people store it in a spare room, away from their living and sleeping areas.

Home oxygen therapy works best if it is used for at least 15 hours per day. It is usually used overnight as your oxygen levels may drop at night. It can also make you sleep better. You may not have to use your oxygen during the day.

You will be told how much oxygen you need to use and how many hours you need to use it for.

Home oxygen therapy can decrease the need for you to be admitted to hospital for treatment. When your blood oxygen levels are restored, you will find you have improved concentration, increased energy, better mood and feel less tired.

Oxygen is highly flammable. You must not smoke or be near any open flame (for example, some forms of gas heating) when you are wearing your oxygen. Do not use your oxygen in the kitchen, around gas or electrical cookers.

The tubing running from the concentrator can pose a tripping hazard so care needs to be taken with this. 

Video: Living with oxygen

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(Collaboration for Leadership in Applied Health Research & Care, UK, 2015)

Oxygen therapy – patient information sheet(external link) American Thoracic Society
Home oxygen therapy(external link) Counties Manukau page, HealthPoint NZ
Home oxygen treatment(external link) NHS Choices, UK
Living with COPD(external link) Asthma and Respiratory Foundation NZ
Long term oxygen therapy(external link) Asthma Respiratory Foundation NZ, 2010

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