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What is Oxygen Therapy?

By M. DePietro
Updated: May 17, 2024

Oxygen therapy is the use of supplemental oxygen usually delivered straight to the lungs. Air we breathe in the atmosphere contains 21 percent oxygen. People with various medical conditions, such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), often need supplemental or extra oxygen.

When breathing problems occur, the level of oxygen in the lungs may decrease. This decreases the amount of oxygen which is delivered through the bloodstream to the vital organs in the body, such as the brain. Oxygen therapy may be given to help prevent complications associated with low blood oxygen levels.

Because medical oxygen is considered a drug, a prescription from a physician is required. Oxygen is delivered in liters per minute and the prescription will specify the amount of oxygen to be given. Prescriptions will also state if oxygen is needed continuously or only while sleeping, when oxygen levels may decrease.

There are several devices to administer oxygen. The most commonly used devices include a nasal cannula or oxygen mask. A nasal cannula is placed into the nostrils and can be used with oxygen amounts up to six liters per minute. People who have higher oxygen requirements will need to use an oxygen mask.

Although oxygen is often used in the hospital, home oxygen therapy can also be given in several different ways. Liquid oxygen, oxygen cylinders and compressed oxygen are all devices which can be used at home. Safety conditions should be kept in mind when using oxygen. Oxygen should not be used around a fireplace or a gas stove, as it can increase the intensity and make something burn faster if it catches on fire. The amount of oxygen delivered should not be increased without talking with your doctor first. Too much oxygen can cause problems in patients with certain respiratory conditions.

In addition to delivering oxygen to the lungs, oxygen is also sometimes delivered to the entire body in a hyperbaric oxygen chamber. The chamber is pressurized and allows greater levels of oxygen to be delivered to the body. This type of oxygen therapy can be used to treat various conditions including severe wounds, burns, and bone injuries.

Several sessions of hyperbaric oxygen therapy are usually needed depending on the condition being treated. It is usually given over the course of several days or weeks. Although the use of a hyperbaric oxygen chamber is considered safe, side effects can occur. Most commonly, pain in the ears occurs due to the pressurized chamber.

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Discussion Comments
By Sporkasia — On Dec 12, 2014

@Animandel - The average person who does not suffer with breathing problems can become low on oxygen when she pushes her body beyond the usual point of physical stress. I have noticed that professional athletes who are performing at high altitudes often use oxygen therapy. The thin air makes catching your breathe more difficult.

By Feryll — On Dec 11, 2014

@Animandel - I had a friend in high school who had asthma. This breathing problem made it more dangerous for him than the rest of us when we were playing sports. After years of wanting to play on the school football teams in grade school, his parents and his doctor finally gave him permission to play on the school team when we reached high school.

One of the conditions for him being on the team was that there had to be oxygen on the sidelines during every game and during all practices. During games he would use the portable oxygen therapy tanks two or three times on average.

There are plenty of people with breathing disorders playing high school, college and professional sports every day. These people may be in great shape, but this doesn't mean they can't have asthma or some other kind of respiratory illness that makes breathing more of a challenge for them when they are active.

By Animandel — On Dec 11, 2014

I was watching a football game on TV the other day with my son. We noticed that one of the players, after running a long touch down, went to the sidelines where he appeared to be out of breath. He went to one of the benches and sat down.

Then at some point the player grabbed one of those oxygen masks and began breathing in oxygen. This seemed strange to me since this guy was a professional athlete and you would think he would be in great physical condition. Is oxygen therapy commonplace on football sidelines or was this guy an exception?

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