Home oxygen therapy

Oxygen therapy is prescribed for many people with chronic lung disease who have low blood oxygen levels.  The body can tolerate low levels of oxygen for short periods of time, but low levels of oxygen for long periods of time can cause problems in your vital organs.  Home oxygen therapy helps return your blood oxygen levels to normal, thus reducing the damage to your vital organs. 

Oxygen therapy is usually prescribed to prolong life and it may also improve the quality of life of the recipient. While the use of oxygen may relieve shortness of breath, in many cases it does not.

Most people with lung conditions feel breathless at times. Feeling short of breath is caused mainly by the extra work of breathing.

You can feel breathless even with normal oxygen levels in the blood.

  • Not everyone with a chronic lung condition needs oxygen at home.
  • Tests are needed so your doctor can tell if you need home oxygen.
  • Home oxygen is prescribed at a flow rate and for a minimum number of hours per day.
  • You only get the full benefit if you use home oxygen as prescribed. Using your oxygen as prescribed, and not just when you feel you need it, is very important.
  • Do not change the flow rate of the oxygen unless directed to do so by your health care professional.
  • Using oxygen when it isn’t prescribed can be harmful.

You have probably learned by now that long term lung conditions, such as COPD, bronchiectasis and pulmonary fibrosis, cause breathlessness. People often think that when they feel breathless, it is because they are not getting enough oxygen into their body.

For most people who have chronic lung conditions, breathlessness mainly occurs because it is harder to breathe the air in and out.

This is called the ‘work of breathing’. Breathing air in and out requires more work if the lungs are ‘too full’ (hyperinflated) or are stiff, or if the breathing tubes or airways are narrow. This is why it is important to learn different breathing techniques, positions and other tips and tricks to help control your breathlessness. Further information around this can be found in module 3.

You may have already found that these techniques help when you get out of breath.

Some people with severe lung conditions have lower levels of oxygen in their blood, either all the time or only when they are sleeping or exercising.

Home oxygen is only prescribed when the blood oxygen level is low. If your blood oxygen level is very low, this means not enough oxygen is being delivered to your vital organs via the blood. In this case, there are benefits of using oxygen at home in the long term.

To determine if you need home oxygen, your doctor can order a blood sample to be taken from an artery (usually at your wrist) while you are resting. You’ll probably remember if you’ve had one of these blood samples taken as it hurts more than a normal blood sample. They may also arrange to test your oxygen level by placing a probe on your finger while you are sleeping or walking.

A common home oxygen prescription is to use oxygen, set at a flow rate of two litres per minute, for at least 18 hours each day.

Most people notice some improvement when they start using oxygen at home. You may notice that you:

  • Feel more refreshed on waking.
  • Feel less breathless performing activities, such as showering and walking.
  • Are able to think more clearly.
  • Have more energy.

People who have severe COPD and very low oxygen levels have been found to live longer if they use oxygen for longer than 16 hours every day.

Once you know your prescription, it is useful to work out when you will use your oxygen to make sure that you get at least the minimum hours each day. Wearing oxygen from late afternoon (5 pm), through the evening and overnight while sleeping until the morning (7 am) takes care of 14 hours. In this example, you would need to wear the oxygen for at least an additional four hours during the day to reach at least 18 hours.

Keeping active, even though you may be on oxygen, is important.

Fitting the oxygen in around your weekly routine is important to ensure that wearing oxygen disrupts your life as little as possible. Some people only need oxygen while sleeping, because their oxygen level is okay during the day. Others need to wear oxygen all the time and need to plan their activities to include oxygen.

An oxygen concentrator is the most common method of giving oxygen. The concentrator is an electronic pump that filters out nitrogen from the air (which is a mixture of oxygen and nitrogen) that we breathe. The concentrator supplies oxygen through long tubing connected to nasal prongs.

There are many portable oxygen concentrators available on the market. It is important to ensure that you check with your health professional that your machine will be able to deliver your prescribed dose of oxygen during rest and during periods of activity.

Another method of delivering oxygen is via small cylinders. Small oxygen cylinders weigh about five kilograms, come with trolleys or carry bags and can be used when away from home. The cylinders are best used with oxygen conservers that make the cylinders last longer. Check with your local oxygen provider to confirm which oxygen conservers are available in your area. Portable oxygen concentrators are also available.

Currently, each state has different arrangements for funding oxygen equipment for use in the home. Discuss with your doctor about the financial support that may be available for your home oxygen. The Lung Foundation has an information booklet called “Home Oxygen”. It covers many aspects of living with home oxygen therapy, such as:

  • How home oxygen therapy works.
  • The equipment that is used.
  • Practical tips others have found helpful.
  • The answers to some commonly asked questions

Click here to download information on Home Oxygen.


Travelling with portable oxygen

Travelling with oxygen can be a little tricky at times, however with careful planning, it is possible to still enjoy seeing the world. More tips are available on the Lung Foundation webpage or in the PDF titled Portable Oxygen Travel Tips.