Oxygen therapy is given to people who have persistently low levels of oxygen in their blood. It can be useful for some people with lung conditions, like COPD or bronchiectasis, when their airways have been permanently damaged and can no longer deliver enough oxygen to the body. Low oxygen levels can make you feel breathless, tired, and confused, and cause fluid to build up around your ankles, feet, and legs. Another sign is blue colouration of the lips, skin, and fingernails. If untreated, low oxygen levels can lead to damage of vital organs such as the heart or brain.

Oxygen therapy may be given as a short-term emergency treatment to someone who is experiencing a COPD flare-up or recovering from an illness. People with severe respiratory conditions, who have ongoing low levels of oxygen in their blood (also called hypoxemia), may be prescribed long-term oxygen therapy. This therapy could be prescribed for specific times, for example while you exercise, sleep or travel outside the home, or it may be prescribed for continuous, long-term use.

What are the benefits of oxygen therapy?

The aim of oxygen therapy is to bring your oxygen levels back to a normal concentration for most of the time. Oxygen therapy reduces the strain on your heart and other organs that is caused by persistently low oxygen levels. It can also increase your energy levels, improve your quality of sleep, and reduce the risk of being admitted to hospital. It is important to note that oxygen therapy is not used to treat breathlessness.

How is oxygen therapy prescribed?

If your healthcare practitioner feels that you will benefit from long-term oxygen therapy, you will be referred to a respiratory specialist. You will be asked to undertake lung function tests and a special blood test called an arterial blood gas test (ABG) to measure the level of oxygen in your blood, before oxygen is prescribed. You may also need a chest X-ray or an ECG test.

You may be prescribed oxygen therapy for a few weeks or months, or possibly the rest of your life. Oxygen therapy can only be prescribed to non-smokers, as having oxygen in the house is a fire risk. No one should smoke or vape near oxygen, or use oxygen near any type of naked flame (gas stoves, lighted fireplaces or candles).

What happens in oxygen therapy?

Oxygen therapy can be provided either by an electrically-operated machine (called an oxygen concentrator) that filters oxygen from the air in your home, or by a cylinder containing oxygen. Your specialist will discuss which is the better option for your situation. Oxygen equipment is generally portable, so you can easily move around while using it.

The oxygen is breathed in through small, soft plastic tubes that fit just inside your nostrils (called nasal ‘cannulae’), or through a mask, that covers the mouth and nose. Nasal cannulae are most often used for home use, as they do not interfere with talking or eating. Some people experience discomfort from the nasal cannulae, but this can be treated by using a water-based lubricant from your local pharmacy (oil-based lubricants like Vaseline will interfere with your oxygen equipment and should not be used).

Oxygen therapy only works while you are attached to the source of oxygen. When you take off your oxygen mask or remove the cannulae, your blood-oxygen level will drop in a few minutes. It is very important to use the oxygen for the amount of time that your specialist has advised. This could be for at least 16 hours a day. Many people use oxygen through the late afternoon and night, leaving the day free for activities.

Like any other prescription medicine, oxygen must be used carefully. You need to follow instructions and follow all the safety precautions. The amount of oxygen prescribed will be carefully calculated based on your oxygen blood levels. You must not change this. If you experience symptoms of disorientation, increased tiredness or morning headaches, be sure to inform your healthcare practitioner. These symptoms could indicate that your oxygen level needs to be adjusted.

When you first receive your oxygen equipment, you will be given a demonstration on how to use it. Learning how to use and care for the oxygen equipment may seem complicated. If you're not clear on something, keep asking questions until you feel confident. It can be useful to have a family member or caregiver learn about your equipment as well.

What should I do after starting on oxygen treatment?

It is important to keep in touch with your doctor or healthcare practitioner. Make contact if your symptoms change and ensure that your oxygen prescription is checked at least once a year. You will also need to get in touch if you have plans to travel. It is a good idea to keep contact numbers for your doctor and oxygen supplier in an easily accessible place in case of any problems.

Remember to let your electricity supplier and your home and car insurer know that you have been prescribed oxygen treatment.

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