How Will Supplementary Oxygen Affect You?

Oxygen Therapy for COPD

COPD and OxygenWith contributions from Eric Patterson and Krystina Ostermeyer.

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) makes breathing a struggle, and when breathing is problematic your body struggles to reach the desired level of oxygen in the blood. Your body’s organs depend on that oxygen to provide energy — without it your body shuts down.

With the breathing difficulty that is a keystone to COPD, many patients experience symptoms that warrant their doctor prescribing COPD oxygen therapy. Oxygen therapy is the use of an oxygen tank to supplement the oxygen your lungs are able to use from the air. A higher concentration inhaled equals more oxygen available in your body.

Whether you’re a newly diagnosed COPD patient or a COPD veteran, chances are if you haven’t already, at some stage it’s likely you’ll need supplementary oxygen. For many of us this can be a daunting proposition and we can be filled with thoughts of doom and gloom.

How will affect me? Is this the beginning of the end? What will people say? These are just some of the questions that flashed through my mind.

When you are first prescribed COPD oxygen therapy, take your time learning about how to use it. Read the instructions carefully and research online.

These devices are designed to be user-friendly and as comfortable as an oxygen tank can be, but it pays to be knowledgeable. Talk to your family and friends and communicate your thoughts and feelings about oxygen therapy so they understand and know what they can do to help.


Don’t stop using your oxygen if it feels awkward or uncomfortable. Your doctor prescribed a specific flow of oxygen per minute, and you should use it exactly as recommended.

If you are worried you may run out of oxygen consider oxygen conserving devices (OCD). They are used with a tank or oxygen concentrator so oxygen is delivered only when you inhale, making the supply of oxygen last longer. Make sure you get the oxygen saturation tested (at rest and with activity) when you first get an OCD to make sure you are breathing enough oxygen, and ensure you find the best portable oxygen concentrator for you.

Let’s explore the world of supplementary oxygen and put your mind at rest.

Why Do We Need Supplementary Oxygen?

COPD is a chronic airway obstruction that is characterized by damage to your lungs or airways and sometimes both. The damage is non-reversible and progressive.

The damage to the air sacs (alveoli) in our lungs makes it difficult to transfer oxygen and carbon dioxide between our lungs and bloodstream. When this occurs the levels of oxygen in our bloodstream is reduced, often to dangerous levels below 90 percent.

Healthy lungs maintain an oxygen saturation level above 96 percent. When our oxygen levels drop below 90 percent you can start to experience an increased shortness of breath and hypoxia.

Hypoxia is when your organs and tissues are not receiving enough oxygen. Prolonged hypoxia can cause serious and permanent damage to your organs.

Hypoxia can sometimes only affect patients when they’re at altitude, such as when they’re traveling by air. An altitude test can determine whether you will need supplementary oxygen when flying.

COPD patients who have ongoing problems with hypoxia are often prescribed supplementary oxygen to keep their oxygen saturations in a safe zone — between 92 and 100 percent. Your doctor will determine the amount of oxygen you’re prescribed after conducting oximetry or an arterial blood gas study.

Some patients will require supplementary oxygen for normal day-to-day activities, while others may only require it when they’re at altitude. Exercise can also affect a patient’s oxygen levels. Fortunately, there are ways to deliver oxygen even when you are mobile.

How Does Supplementary Oxygen Work?

Supplementary oxygen is delivered to a patient via the use of different types of oxygen equipment. The two most common delivery systems used are oxygen concentrators and medical oxygen cylinders.

Oxygen concentrators deliver oxygen to the patients via an electrical medical device that extracts air from the room air and then delivers it to the patient. A tube with a nasal cannula delivers the oxygen from the concentrator to the patient.

Concentrators have flow controls that can be tailored to the patients need and range in size and capacity.

Medical oxygen cylinders are a popular option with high liter flow users. In this system, the oxygen is stored in liquid form in a home reservoir, which must be filled on a regular basis.

The advantage of this system is they don’t require electricity to operate, however one downside is the difficulty of them with transportation. But, there are smaller cylinders available for mobility.

Many patients use concentrators as their main source of oxygen with a medical cylinder as a backup for power outages.

Options for supplementary oxygen varies between jurisdictions and your healthcare professional will be able to assist you in obtaining the correct equipment for your needs.

How Many Liters of Oxygen Is Necessary?

People often think that there is a one-size-fits-all approach to oxygen therapy. However, it is kind of like asking someone, “What will the weather be like in three weeks?”

The answer? It varies from person-to-person – and it can even vary day-to-day!

Oxygen therapy is administered as “liters per minute” or “lpm” – this is how the dial on your oxygen tank will be labeled.

When you are initially prescribed oxygen, your physician will have to write a prescription and it will be comprised of the following:

  • The type of oxygen system that you are prescribed.
  • How many hours per day you should be utilizing oxygen.
  • If you need oxygen at rest, exercise, and/or sleep, and how many liters per minute is required for each activity.

For example, you may need 2L of oxygen while you are going about your daily activities, but you may need 4L of oxygen while you are sleeping.

Next page: Side effects of oxygen therapy, and coping with COPD and oxygen therapy.


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