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5 Things to Know About Using Supplemental Oxygen for COPD

COPD Basics

May 22, 2024

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Photography by FG Trade/Getty Images

Photography by FG Trade/Getty Images

by Elizabeth Millard


Medically Reviewed by:

Meir Kryger, MD, FRCP(C)


by Elizabeth Millard


Medically Reviewed by:

Meir Kryger, MD, FRCP(C)


Here’s what to remember if your doctor recommends oxygen therapy for your COPD treatment.

When it comes to chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), your treatment plan will likely include multiple elements, including medication and lifestyle changes. For some, supplemental oxygen may also be part of that mix.

Whether that applies to you or a loved one — or you have mild COPD and want to know what’s involved if you progress toward needing oxygen — here are some key facts to help you understand how it works.

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What to know about using supplemental oxygen

Not everyone with COPD requires this type of oxygen, but it’s often used to improve quality of life and decrease the impact of COPD exacerbations (aka flares) for people with consistently lower oxygen numbers.

Research from 2018 suggests long-term oxygen therapy at home extends the life of people who use it. The researchers also found that using supplemental oxygen during physical activity can help prevent low oxygen levels.

Knowing how supplemental oxygen works and its benefits and risks can help you adjust to this new normal with COPD.

Oxygen delivery will be tailored to your needs

Supplemental oxygen for COPD is similar to any other prescription medication — it must be adjusted based on your situation.

For example, you might be prescribed supplemental oxygen for short-term use and told to use it only during a flare. However, your doctor might recommend oxygen 24/7, even when sleeping.

According to the American Lung Association (ALA), your healthcare team will tell you your flow rate, which means how much oxygen is delivered per minute.

Your doctor may recommend using an FDA-approved oximeter to make sure your blood levels of oxygen are where they should be. Some oximeters are accurate in people with all skin types, but some may not be accurate in people with dark skin tones.

Some people start with short courses of treatment in an office or hospital setting, or it might be determined that you need more support at home.

If home support is needed, you’ll be prescribed supplemental oxygen you can use there, according to Bindu Akkanti, MD, a pulmonologist with UTHealth Houston and director of heart and vascular care at Memorial Hermann.

Benefits go beyond lung function

Getting more oxygen into your body offers more benefits than just improving your lung symptoms. You might also notice using oxygen improves your sleep, any fatigue, and physical activity.

Plus, using oxygen can boost your mood since you can do more than before. According to the ALA, anxiety and depression are more common in people living with COPD than people without the condition.

The organization also suggests that if you manage your anxiety and depression, you’ll feel more confident with your COPD treatment plan, have improved physical health, and lower medical costs.

There may be some side effects

You may notice minor side effects when you first begin oxygen therapy, says Akkanti. The most common are:

  • headaches
  • dryness in the nasal passages that may lead to bloody noses and dry coughing
  • skin irritation
  • nausea

“When these occur, it’s common for a patient to want to adjust oxygen flow, with the belief that getting less oxygen will make side effects like these go away,” she adds. “However, your flow rate and usage frequency have been set that way for a reason. So, a better strategy is to call your doctor’s office and ask about strategies for alleviating these issues.”

You’re usually responsible for cleaning and care

Managing your oxygen equipment is important. Depending on the type of equipment you have, you’ll be shown how to clean it regularly so that it works well.

It’s important to ask your doctor or your medical supply provider how, when, and if you should clean any of your equipment.

If they recommend you clean your oxygen equipment at home, the ALA offers the following tips:

  • Every week: Wash your nasal cannula, clean your air filter, and wipe the outside of your concentrator with soap and warm water.
  • When refilling your humidifier bottle: Wash it with soap and warm water, rinse well, and refill with distilled water.
  • Every 2 to 4 weeks: Replace your cannula or mask and change it if you get sick.
  • Every month: Replace your air filter.
  • Every 2 months: Replace your tubing.
  • Every year: Ask your oxygen supply company to service your concentrator.

If oxygen is delivered directly through your trachea, ask your doctor how to clean this part.

Keep safety in mind

Whether you’re traveling with supplemental oxygen or using an at-home oxygen setup, consider following these important safety tips:

  • Keep oxygen away from heat and flames, including cigarettes and other flammable products (like hairspray and other aerosol sprays).
  • Avoid creams and lotions like vapor rubs and petroleum jelly. Use water-based products instead. Also, avoid alcohol-based hand sanitizers.
  • Always keep your liquid oxygen unit upright, never on its side.
  • Don’t store your oxygen in an enclosed space like a closet or the trunk of a car.
  • Turn off your oxygen when you’re not using it.

There may be other considerations that are unique to your oxygen therapy device. Be sure to talk with your doctor or device provider for clear usage and safety instructions.

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Supplemental oxygen can be an important part of managing your COPD since it can lower your risk of complications.

“In general, those with more advanced COPD tend to benefit from supplemental oxygen usage to some degree, whether that means receiving treatment in a doctor’s office or having oxygen at home,” says Akkanti.

“When this is used alongside other treatment, as well as appropriate education in avoiding COPD triggers and making meaningful lifestyle changes related to activity and nutrition, it can be a good way to keep COPD managed,” she adds.

Medically reviewed on May 22, 2024

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About the author

Elizabeth Millard

Elizabeth Millard lives in Minnesota with her partner, Karla, and their menagerie of farm animals. Her work has appeared in a variety of publications, including SELF, Everyday Health, HealthCentral, Runner’s World, Prevention, Livestrong, Medscape, and many others. You can find her on Instagram and LinkedIn.

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