Q: What is oxygen?
A: Oxygen is a colorless, tasteless, odorless gas that is necessary for life. When we take a breath, we draw air containing 21% oxygen into our lungs. The oxygen passes from our lungs into our bloodstream, where it is carried in the red blood cells to all of our organs and tissues. Oxygen is needed by our bodies to convert food we eat into heat and energy—in other words, to maintain life.
Q: How is oxygen made and stored?
A: There are three common methods for obtaining pure oxygen and storing it in home oxygen systems:
1. Air is cooled and compressed until it becomes a liquid. As the liquid air warms, the oxygen “boils” off and is collected. It is then re-cooled and compressed into liquid oxygen and stored in “thermos bottles” known as reservoirs.
2. The oxygen gas is compressed and stored in heavy steel pressurized tanks.
3. Room air is pumped through a fine filter that traps all but the oxygen, which is allowed to pass through. This is known as an oxygen concentrator or oxygen enricher.
Q: How do I use home oxygen?
A: A small, adjustable plastic tube (called a nasal cannula), is placed under the nose. This tubing is attached to the oxygen tank and facilitates oxygen flow to your nose.
Q: How do I order home oxygen once my physician prescribes it?
A: Your physician, respiratory therapist, social worker or nurse may recommend an oxygen supplier to you, or you may look online or in the Yellow Pages under “Oxygen.” When selecting an oxygen supplier, consider the following:
• Will the company deliver and install the equipment?
• Does the company have a delivery service 24 hours a day? Seven days a week?
• Does the company provide information on the use and cleaning of the equipment?
• Is a nurse or therapist available to answer questions and come to your home if necessary?
• Will the company bill Medicare or your insurance for you?
Q: How much does home oxygen cost? Will Medicare and/or my insurance pay for it?
A: The cost can vary greatly depending on your prescription. There is a variety of oxygen equipment available. Your physician decides how much oxygen you need. The supplier will help you select the most economical system to meet your needs and activities and estimate your approximate monthly cost.
Medicare will pay 80% of approved expenses. Many private insurance carriers also pay for oxygen within the limits of their policies. To verify your coverage, contact your insurance claims representative.
Q: Why do I need supplemental oxygen?
A: Normally, oxygen passes readily from the lungs into the bloodstream and is pumped by the heart to all parts of the body. When lung disease occurs, oxygen may not be able to pass as readily into the bloodstream. When the heart is diseased, it may not be able to pump as much oxygen-carrying blood.
Either of these situations can result in diminished amount of oxygen reaching the organs and tissues of the body, preventing them from functioning properly. This can cause many undesirable effects such as decreased ability to exercise, difficulty breathing, fatigue, confusion and loss of memory, etc. Breathing supplemental oxygen increases the amount of oxygen that passes into the bloodstream and is carried to the organs and tissues.
Q: Do all patients with lung or heart disease require supplemental oxygen?
A: It is estimated that over 4 million patients with lung or heart problems either are benefiting or could benefit from supplemental oxygen. This is a rather small percent of the estimated 60 million Americans affected by lung or heart and circulatory disease.
Q: How can I tell if I need supplemental oxygen?
A: You might suspect you need supplemental oxygen if you have one or more of the following symptoms: decreased ability to exercise, difficulty breathing, fatigue easily, experience periods of disorientation or memory loss.
The only way to determine if you require supplemental oxygen is to measure the amount of oxygen in your blood with Arterial Blood Gas or oximetry. Your physician performs this evaluation and then determines the need for supplemental oxygen. At this stage, your physician will prescribe the proper flow rate and duration of use.
Q: How can I tell if I am getting the right amount of oxygen?
A: You may anticipate some symptoms prior to oxygen use decrease as your blood’s oxygen level returns to normal. But the only way to be sure you are getting the right amount of oxygen is to have the oxygen level in your blood measured while using the supplemental oxygen.
If new symptoms, such as headaches, confusion, or increased sleepiness appear, you might be getting too much oxygen and should notify your physician immediately. Do not change the liter flow or hours of usage without first checking with your physician.
Q: Can I become addicted to oxygen?
A: Oxygen is not addicting. We all need oxygen to live. If your lungs and/or heart are diseased and cannot supply enough oxygen to your body from normal room air, you need to breathe supplemental oxygen. Should your condition improve, you may no longer require supplemental oxygen.
Q: Will oxygen relieve my shortness of breath?
A: Oxygen frequently does help, but there are reasons other than lack of oxygen for shortness of breath. In such cases, oxygen may not relieve the condition. By itself, shortness of breath is not life-threatening.
Q: Does the need for supplemental oxygen mean that I am dying?
A: Patients may live for years on home oxygen. Others require supplemental oxygen at home temporarily to relieve their discomfort after being hospitalized or experiencing other stressful situations.
Q: Do I have to use oxygen all the time?
A: Your physician will determine how many hours per day you should use the oxygen. Note: Be sure to follow your physician’s directions carefully for desired therapeutic benefit.
Q: How do I get around in my home while using oxygen?
A: There is a variety of oxygen equipment available. Usually it will be placed where you will be using it most often. Up to 50 feet of tubing can also be added to allow you to freely move around. Your home oxygen supplier will recommend the best choice of equipment for your individual needs and activities.
Q: Can I cook and eat while using oxygen?
A: You can continue your normal activities as long as you use common sense while using oxygen: don’t cook on an open flame, don’t smoke, and be careful that your oxygen tubing does not come in contact with hot burners, pots, pans or anything that could cause the plastic tubing to melt. Using oxygen while eating may be beneficial in reducing the shortness of breath that many patients experience during and after eating.
Q: Can I use electrical appliances while using oxygen?
A: Electrical appliances that get hot or spark during operation should be kept at least five feet away from the oxygen system.
Q: Can I use oxygen around smokers?
A: Yes, as long as no one smokes within five feet of you and your oxygen equipment.
Q: What should I do if I want to leave my home?
A: There are small portable tanks that can be taken with you, some of which hold enough oxygen to provide up to eight hours of continuous use. If you’re traveling, there are optional refillable tanks that may be transported in your car. Your supplier may also be able to arrange for you to pick up oxygen en route and at your destination.
Q: How heavy are portable tanks?
A: Portable tanks vary in weight from 6 to 15 pounds. These tanks may be carried in a shoulder bag or placed on an available pull cart.
Q: Can I refill the portable tank myself?
A: There are two types of portable tanks: liquid systems and high-pressure cylinders. The liquid systems are designed to be refilled by the patient. They are simple to operate and very safe. Refilling small high-pressure cylinders, however, can be hazardous, and should only be refilled by an authorized provider.
Q: Can I drive a car or travel while using oxygen?
A: Yes. Again, all you need to do is use common sense. When driving, secure the oxygen unit so it will not tip or fall. Leave a window slightly open for ventilation. You can also travel on public transportation while using oxygen. When going out, be sure to make reservations early, and communicate your special needs so that restaurants and hotels have enough time to accommodate you.
Q: What do I do if I run out of oxygen?
A: You will probably feel some of the discomfort you experienced before going on oxygen therapy, but this discomfort should not be life-threatening. Call your supplier to replace or refill the container. While waiting for your supplier, reduce discomfort by placing minimal demand on your lungs; for example, sit or lie down and relax until your tank is refilled.
If you are away from home and your portable tank runs out, return home for your refill and continue using your available oxygen.
Q: Is there anything I cannot do while using oxygen?
A: You can do anything that you would normally do except activities that bring you within five feet of an open flame, a burning cigarette or an electrical appliance that sparks. You may actually find that you’re able to perform some activities while using oxygen that you couldn’t otherwise.
Q: Are there any hazards involved in using oxygen?
A: While oxygen does not burn, anything that can burn will do so more easily and more rapidly in an oxygen-rich environment. Therefore, do not use oxygen near an open flame, burning cigarette or electrical equipment that sparks during operation.
Do not use oil, grease or Vaseline® on oxygen equipment. Should frost form on your liquid oxygen system, do not allow frosted portions of the equipment to come in contact with your skin. Your home oxygen supplier will thoroughly explain all safety precautions related to your home oxygen therapy.
Be sure to follow your physician’s orders exactly when using oxygen, and never change the liter flow without his/her approval.