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Champion HHC Health Information Library

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Oxygen Therapy

What is oxygen?

Oxygen is a gas that your body needs to work properly. Your cells need oxygen to make energy. Your lungs absorb oxygen from the air you breathe. The oxygen enters your blood from your lungs and travels to your organs and body tissues.

Certain medical conditions can cause your blood oxygen levels to be too low. Low blood oxygen may make you feel short of breath, tired, or confused. It can also damage your body. Oxygen therapy can help you get more oxygen.

What is oxygen therapy?

Oxygen therapy is a treatment that provides you with extra oxygen to breathe in. It is also called supplemental oxygen. It is only available through a prescription from your health care provider. You may get it in the hospital, another medical setting, or at home. Some people only need it for a short period of time. Others will need long-term oxygen therapy.

There are different types of devices that can give you oxygen. Some use tanks of liquid or gas oxygen. Others use an oxygen concentrator, which pulls oxygen out of the air. You will get the oxygen through a nose tube (cannula), a mask, or a tent. The extra oxygen is breathed in along with normal air.

There are portable versions of the tanks and oxygen concentrators. They can make it easier for you to move around while using your therapy.

Who needs oxygen therapy?

You may need oxygen therapy if you have a condition that causes low blood oxygen, such as

  • COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease)
  • Pneumonia
  • COVID-19
  • A severe asthma attack
  • Late-stage heart failure
  • Cystic fibrosis
  • Sleep apnea
What are the risks of using oxygen therapy?

Oxygen therapy is generally safe, but it can cause side effects. They include a dry or bloody nose, tiredness, and morning headaches.

Oxygen poses a fire risk, so you should never smoke or use flammable materials when using oxygen. If you use oxygen tanks, make sure your tank is secured and stays upright. If it falls and cracks or the top breaks off, the tank can fly like a missile.

What is hyperbaric oxygen therapy?

Hyperbaric oxygen therapy (HBOT) is a different type of oxygen therapy. It involves breathing oxygen in a pressurized chamber or tube. This allows your lungs to gather up to three times more oxygen than you would get by breathing oxygen at normal air pressure. The extra oxygen moves through your blood and to your organs and body tissues. HBOT is used to treat certain serious wounds, burns, injuries, and infections. It also treats air or gas embolisms (bubbles of air in your bloodstream), decompression sickness suffered by divers, and carbon monoxide poisoning.

But some treatment centers claim that HBOT can treat almost anything, including HIV/AIDS, Alzheimer's disease, autism, and cancer. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has not cleared or approved the use of HBOT for these conditions. There are risks to using HBOT, so always check with your primary health care provider before you try it.

NIH: National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute

Pleural Disorders

Your pleura is a large, thin sheet of tissue that wraps around the outside of your lungs and lines the inside of your chest cavity. Between the layers of the pleura is a very thin space. Normally it's filled with a small amount of fluid. The fluid helps the two layers of the pleura glide smoothly past each other as your lungs breathe air in and out.

Disorders of the pleura include

  • Pleurisy - inflammation of the pleura that causes sharp pain with breathing
  • Pleural effusion - excess fluid in the pleural space
  • Pneumothorax - buildup of air or gas in the pleural space
  • Hemothorax - buildup of blood in the pleural space

Many different conditions can cause pleural problems. Viral infection is the most common cause of pleurisy. The most common cause of pleural effusion is congestive heart failure. Lung diseases, like COPD, tuberculosis, and acute lung injury, cause pneumothorax. Injury to the chest is the most common cause of hemothorax. Treatment focuses on removing fluid, air, or blood from the pleural space, relieving symptoms, and treating the underlying condition.

NIH: National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute

Pulmonary Fibrosis

Pulmonary fibrosis is a condition in which the tissue deep in your lungs becomes scarred over time. This tissue gets thick and stiff. That makes it hard for you to catch your breath, and your blood may not get enough oxygen.

Causes of pulmonary fibrosis include environmental pollutants, some medicines, some connective tissue diseases, and interstitial lung disease. Interstitial lung disease is the name for a large group of diseases that inflame or scar the lungs. In most cases, the cause cannot be found. This is called idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis.

Symptoms include

  • Shortness of breath
  • A dry, hacking cough that doesn't get better
  • Fatigue
  • Weight loss for no known reason
  • Aching muscles and joints
  • Clubbing, which is the widening and rounding of the tips of the fingers or toes

Your doctor may use your medical history, imaging tests, a biopsy, and lung function tests to diagnose pulmonary fibrosis. There is no cure. Treatments can help with symptoms and improve your quality of life. They include medicines, oxygen therapy, pulmonary rehabilitation, or a lung transplant.

NIH: National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute

Respiratory Failure

What is respiratory failure?

Respiratory failure is a condition in which your blood doesn't have enough oxygen or has too much carbon dioxide. Sometimes you can have both problems.

When you breathe, your lungs take in oxygen. The oxygen passes into your blood, which carries it to your organs. Your organs, such as your heart and brain, need this oxygen-rich blood to work well.

Another part of breathing is removing the carbon dioxide from the blood and breathing it out. Having too much carbon dioxide in your blood can harm your organs.

What causes respiratory failure?

Conditions that affect your breathing can cause respiratory failure. These conditions may affect the muscles, nerves, bones, or tissues that support breathing. Or they may affect the lungs directly. These conditions include

  • Diseases that affect the lungs, such as COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease), cystic fibrosis, pneumonia, pulmonary embolism, and COVID-19
  • Conditions that affect the nerves and muscles that control breathing, such as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), muscular dystrophy, spinal cord injuries, and stroke
  • Problems with the spine, such as scoliosis (a curve in the spine). They can affect the bones and muscles used for breathing.
  • Damage to the tissues and ribs around the lungs. An injury to the chest can cause this damage.
  • Drug or alcohol overdose
  • Inhalation injuries, such as from inhaling smoke (from fires) or harmful fumes
What are the symptoms of respiratory failure?

The symptoms of respiratory failure depend on the cause and the levels of oxygen and carbon dioxide in your blood.

A low oxygen level in the blood can cause shortness of breath and air hunger (the feeling that you can't breathe in enough air). Your skin, lips, and fingernails may also have a bluish color. A high carbon dioxide level can cause rapid breathing and confusion.

Some people who have respiratory failure may become very sleepy or lose consciousness. They also may have arrhythmia (irregular heartbeat). You may have these symptoms if your brain and heart are not getting enough oxygen.

How is respiratory failure diagnosed?

Your health care provider will diagnose respiratory failure based on

  • Your medical history
  • A physical exam, which often includes
    • Listening to your lungs to check for abnormal sounds
    • Listening to your heart to check for arrhythmia
    • Looking for a bluish color on your skin, lips, and fingernails
  • Diagnostic tests, such as
    • Pulse oximetry, a small sensor that uses a light to measure how much oxygen is in your blood. The sensor goes on the end of your finger or on your ear.
    • Arterial blood gas test, a test that measures the oxygen and carbon dioxide levels in your blood. The blood sample is taken from an artery, usually in your wrist.

Once you are diagnosed with respiratory failure, your provider will look for what is causing it. Tests for this often include a chest x-ray. If your provider thinks you may have arrhythmia because of the respiratory failure, you may have an EKG (electrocardiogram). This is simple, painless test that detects and records your heart's electrical activity.

What are the treatments for respiratory failure?

Treatment for respiratory failure depends on

  • Whether it is acute (short-term) or chronic (ongoing)
  • How severe it is
  • What is causing it

Acute respiratory failure can be a medical emergency. You may need treatment in intensive care unit at a hospital. Chronic respiratory failure can often be treated at home. But if your chronic respiratory failure is severe, you might need treatment in a long-term care center.

One of the main goals of treatment is to get oxygen to your lungs and other organs and remove carbon dioxide from your body. Another goal is to treat the cause of the condition. Treatments may include

  • Oxygen therapy, through a nasal cannula (two small plastic tubes that go in your nostrils) or through a mask that fits over your nose and mouth
  • Tracheostomy, a surgically-made hole that goes through the front of your neck and into your windpipe. A breathing tube, also called a tracheostomy, or trach tube, is placed in the hole to help you breathe.
  • Ventilator, a breathing machine that blows air into your lungs. It also carries carbon dioxide out of your lungs.
  • Other breathing treatments, such as noninvasive positive pressure ventilation (NPPV), which uses mild air pressure to keep your airways open while you sleep. Another treatment is a special bed that rocks back and forth, to help you breathe in and out.
  • Fluids, often through an intravenous (IV), to improve blood flow throughout your body. They also provide nutrition.
  • Medicines for discomfort
  • Treatments for the cause of the respiratory failure. These treatments may include medicines and procedures.

If you have respiratory failure, see your health care provider for ongoing medical care. Your provider may suggest pulmonary rehabilitation.

If your respiratory failure is chronic, make sure that you know when and where to get help for your symptoms. You need emergency care if you have severe symptoms, such as trouble catching your breath or talking. You should call your provider if you notice that your symptoms are worsening or if you have new signs and symptoms.

Living with respiratory failure may cause fear, anxiety, depression, and stress. Talk therapy, medicines, and support groups can help you feel better.

NIH: National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute

Alpha-1 Antitrypsin Deficiency

Alpha-1 antitrypsin deficiency (AAT deficiency) is an inherited condition that raises your risk for lung and liver disease. Alpha-1 antitrypsin (AAT) is a protein that protects the lungs. The liver makes it. If the AAT proteins aren't the right shape, they get stuck in the liver cells and can't reach the lungs.

Symptoms of AAT deficiency include

  • Shortness of breath and wheezing
  • Repeated lung infections
  • Tiredness
  • Rapid heartbeat upon standing
  • Vision problems
  • Weight loss

Some people have no symptoms and do not develop complications.

Blood tests and genetic tests can tell if you have it. If your lungs are affected, you may also have lung tests. Treatments include medicines, pulmonary rehab, and extra oxygen, if needed. Severe cases may need a lung transplant. Not smoking can prevent or delay lung symptoms.

NIH: National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute