Supplemental Oxygen

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 maintain or increase activity.

Oxygen is an element, a gas, and a drug. 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.

For people who do not get enough oxygen naturally, supplements of oxygen can have several benefits. Oxygen therapy can:

  • Improve sleep and mood
  • Increase mental alertness and stamina
  • Allow a person's body to carry out normal functions
  • Prevent heart failure in people with severe lung disease

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. 

Safety Tips

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. Follow these tips for safe oxygen use:

Post "No Smoking" and "No Open Flames" signs in and outside your home to remind people not to smoke
  • 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.

Other breathing treatments called assisted breathing are becoming more frequently used for patients with COPD. These treatments may be called CPAPCPAP, or continuous positive airway pressure, is a treatment that uses continuous mild air pressure to keep the airways open., Bi-PAPBi-PAP, or bilevel positive airway pressure (BiPAP), is a treatment that uses pressurized air is delivered at two alternating levels two keep the airways open., or nasal positive pressure ventilationA mode of respiratory ventilation.. Talk to your doctor about whether or not this is right for you. For more information call the Lung HelpLine at 1-800-LUNGUSA (1-800-586-4872).

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