Supplemental Oxygen

Oxygen is an element, a gas, and a drug that can help people who have certain lung diseases.  The cells in the body get their energy from the interaction of oxygen with food.  The energy produced is used to do everything from breathing, to carrying out bodily functions, to going to the grocery store.  Sometimes with COPD, lung function is reduced to the extent that supplemental oxygen (also called oxygen therapy) is needed to continue normal bodily functions and may also help them be more active.

For people who do not get enough oxygen naturally, supplements of oxygen can have several benefits. Oxygen therapy can improve their sleep and mood, increase their mental alertness and stamina, and allow their bodies to carry out normal functions.  It also prevents heart failure in people with severe lung disease.

There are three ways oxygen therapy is supplied: 

Compressed oxygen gas and liquid oxygen are two ways to have oxygen delivered to the home.  Oxygen gas is stored in tanks or cylinders of steel or aluminum.  These tanks come in many sizes; larger ones are usually used at home, and smaller ones are used for leaving the house.  Liquid oxygen is made by cooling the oxygen gas, which changes it to a liquid form.  It is often used by people who are more active because larger amounts of oxygen can be stored in smaller, more convenient containers than compressed oxygen.  The disadvantage is that it cannot be kept for a long time because it will evaporate.

Oxygen concentrators are also available to use in the home.  An oxygen concentrator is an electric device about the size of an end table.  It produces oxygen by concentrating the oxygen that is already in the air and removing other gases.  This method is less expensive, easier to maintain, and doesn't require refilling.  Some oxygen concentrators, however, give off heat and are noisy.  Other drawbacks are that you may notice an increase in your electricity bill, and you will need a back-up source of oxygen in case of a power failure.  There are now several reliable portable oxygen concentrators that allow people using them to easily leave the home, go to work, enjoy recreational activities and travel.

You might need oxygen therapy all of the time or just part of the time.  A doctor's prescription is required for supplemental oxygen. 

There are important safety factors to keep in mind when using oxygen.  Oxygen is a safe gas and is non-flammable, however, it supports combustion. Materials burn more readily in an oxygen-enriched environment.  The American Lung Association offers the following safety tips for oxygen use:

  • Avoid open flames in the presence of oxygen use - e.g. matches, cigarette lighters, candles, and burning tobacco.  Insist that people who wish to smoke step outside your home to protect your lungs and your home.
  • Caution must also be used around other sources of heat, such as electric or gas heaters and/or stoves – at least 5 feet is a recommended distance between oxygen and other heat sources.
  • People using oxygen should avoid using lotions or creams containing petroleum.  The combustion of flammable products containing petroleum can also be supported by the presence of oxygen.  Use water-based products instead.
  • It is important to store cylinders safely - cylinders should be upright and secure, in an approved cart or device for storage.
  • Remember when not in use, oxygen supply valves should be turned off.
  • Always follow the instructions of your oxygen supply company regarding safe usage.

For more information call the American Lung Association Lung HelpLine at 1-800-LUNG-USA (1-800-586-4872)