Introduction to Supplemental Oxygen

Respiratory diseases often create the need for more oxygen than what is available in the air. If you have Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) or Interstitial Lung Disease (ILD), you may already be using supplemental oxygen and if not you may have already discussed it with your doctor.

However, if you’re still not sure what supplemental oxygen is and what it means for you, this post will give you an overview.

What is Supplemental Oxygen?

Supplemental oxygen is a physician-ordered therapy to provide your body with extra oxygen to support vital bodily functions in the presence of heart or lung disease. By using an oxygen concentrator, you’ll be able to obtain higher concentrations of oxygen than what’s available in the air.

Contrary to popular belief, the air we breathe is made up of 78% Nitrogen, 21% Oxygen, and 1% of trace gases. So, with supplemental oxygen, you’ll be able to achieve oxygen concentrations of 22%–100% depending on the type of device you’re using.

Who Needs Supplemental Oxygen?

If you have a chronic respiratory disease, you may eventually need supplemental oxygen to support your health. For instance, if you have a mild case of COPD, you might only need supplemental oxygen at night or while exercising. However, if you have a more severe case of COPD, you might require supplemental oxygen all day to maintain normal levels of oxygen in your body.

Why Do I Need to Use Supplemental Oxygen?

Oxygen is necessary for normal bodily function. In the presence of lung disease, your body might not be getting enough oxygen into your bloodstream. Without enough oxygen, your body starts to compensate in less efficient ways, which puts stress on your body and could even be fatal if left unchecked.

Some of the signs and symptoms of lack of oxygen in your body (or hypoxemia) includes:

  • Confusion
  • Rapid heart rate
  • Bluish skin on the lips, nose, or fingernails
  • Shortness of breath

If you need to use supplemental oxygen, it is because your doctor has determined (based on your symptoms and other lab tests) that your blood oxygen levels are too low to support normal bodily function. There are a couple of tests that will help your doctor determine your need for supplemental oxygen:

  1. Arterial Blood Gas
  2. An arterial blood gas is a blood test performed to determine your blood oxygen level. If your results show a low level of oxygen while breathing normal air, that might be evidence that your lung disease has progressed to the point where supplemental oxygen is necessary. Your doctor will discuss your test results and determine what they mean for you.

  3. Pulse Oximetry
  4. A less invasive method to obtain blood oxygen levels (although potentially less accurate) is called pulse oximetry. This simple test captures your blood oxygen level from a light-emitting probe that is placed on your finger. Depending on what your pulse oximetry level is after a short walk or a bit of exercise, your doctor will determine whether you need to use supplemental oxygen or not.

If either of these tests show that your oxygen level is low, your doctor will prescribe supplemental oxygen so you can keep your blood oxygen levels within a normal range throughout the day.

When Do I Need to Use Supplemental Oxygen?

Your supplemental oxygen requirements will vary depending on the severity of your lung disease. Some people only need to use supplemental oxygen when they get sick. Others may only need to use oxygen at night. However, some people might need to use supplemental oxygen all day.

It’s important to follow the instructions of your doctor when it comes to your oxygen needs. If you only need to wear supplemental oxygen at night, but you wear it all day instead, you could run out of oxygen sooner than expected. Conversely, if you’re supposed to wear it all day, and you only wear it “when you remember,” you risk having your oxygen levels drop too low, which could lead to a serious medical emergency.

Educate yourself with our Free Oxygen Therapy Guide

How Does Supplemental Oxygen Work?

There are several ways supplemental oxygen is delivered:

  1. High-Pressure Oxygen System
  2. High-pressure oxygen systems are usually found in hospitals and other medical facilities. While this is the most versatile system for supplemental oxygen, it’s rare to find this type of system outside of licensed facilities.

  3. Portable Oxygen Tank
  4. Portable oxygen tanks are small aluminum cylinders that carry compressed oxygen gas or liquid oxygen that turns into a gas. The contents of an oxygen tank are under extreme pressure, which allows you to get a constant flow of oxygen until the tank is empty.

  5. Oxygen Concentrator
  6. Oxygen concentrators come in two types: stationary and portable. Both types vary regarding functionality, but they both work on the same principle of concentrating oxygen from the ambient air and outputting enough flow to reach therapeutic levels. Stationary concentrators are a great option if you’re only prescribed oxygen at night. However, if you need oxygen throughout the day, portable oxygen concentrators are an excellent choice because they can be taken with you on-the-go.

How Does Supplemental Oxygen Work?

Each of these forms of supplemental oxygen use a nasal cannula to supply the oxygen to your body. A nasal cannula is a two-pronged tubing that rests just inside the opening of your nose to provide a direct flow of oxygen into your body.

Are There Any Dangers to Using Supplemental Oxygen?

When you’re using supplemental oxygen, there are some things to consider minimizing safety hazards:

  1. Avoid open flames when using oxygen to prevent severe and even life-threatening burns.
  2. Always keep your oxygen tank in its proper carrying device to avoid dropping the tank and potentially causing serious injury.
  3. Do not use petroleum-based creams or lotions while using oxygen because these substances are flammable, which is intensified in the presence of oxygen. Always use water-based creams and lotions while using supplemental oxygen.

Final Thoughts

Supplemental oxygen can improve your quality of life by preventing serious declines in your blood oxygen level. Moreover, with the latest technology, patients with serious lung disease can now restore normal lifestyles and easily get back into their routines.

Have more questions about Supplemental Oxygen?

Updated: December 20, 2018

About Scott Ridl: Scott joined American Medical Sales and Rentals in 2008 as a Web Manager and Content Writer. He is a writer and designer. He is extensively trained on oxygen therapy products from leading manufacturers such as Inogen, Respironics, Chart, Invacare, ResMed and more. Scott works closely with respiratory therapists and oxygen specialists to educate the community about oxygen therapy products, COPD, asthma and lung diseases. He writes weekly columns and is passionate about educating the community on oxygen therapy and respiratory issues.

7 thoughts on “Introduction to Supplemental Oxygen”

  • gary Darby Bey
    gary Darby Bey March 4, 2019 at 2:15 am

    What if I need a portable oxygen concentrator that goes to 10

    • Margaret Goodman
      Margaret Goodman March 4, 2019 at 3:36 am

      I would talk with your provider, but there is an option called a "portable" option called a canister or liquid fill solution that you can look at it. This, however, is not a solution that we provide, so we strongly recommend that you speak with your provider.

  • Richard

    How does the filter work? The only explanation is that a filter separates the oxygen from the surrounding atmosphere, which contains 20% oxygen and 80 % nitrogen, discards the nitrogen and supplies only the oxygen which it has recovered to the person needing the increased oxygen supply. So, again how does the filter work?

    • Corey Dyben

      Hello Richard,

      That is exactly correct. The sieve beds or columns bring in room air and it mixes around with the zeolite inside the column. The zeolite holds on to the Nitrogen thus pushing out medical grade oxygen between 90% and 98%.

      The AMSR Team

  • Nilda Melendez

    My doctor is Dr. Moser (neurology) job in Westchester Dr, Wake Forest Health in High Point I need a oxígen machine in the night. I prefer Nasal cánula no mask I have fobia . I talk a Dr, I need oxigen for 24/7 because need air for a day. Sleep a day is no find because need air. Sorry only speak spanish. Thanks

    • Sanket Jain

      Nuestro especialista en oxígeno estará encantado de ayudarlo con sus necesidades. Llámenos al 1-877-644-4581.

  • Abdulhamid

    I am looking to have nitrogen and oxygen generators as an enterprenuer so that please send me details of this systems.


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