Oxygen therapy

Last updated: June 13, 2023

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Summarytoggle arrow icon

Oxygen therapy is commonly used in hospital settings for the management of acute and chronic respiratory conditions, and increasingly in the community for patients with chronic conditions requiring home oxygen therapy. As with all treatments, oxygen therapy has side effects, and inappropriate use with inadequate monitoring can be fatal. The method of oxygen delivery, monitoring, target oxygen saturation, and indications for weaning should all be tailored to the individual patient. For discharged patients who require long-term oxygen therapy, risks should be discussed with patients and adequate monitoring should be established.

Pathophysiologytoggle arrow icon

To maintain a constant supply of oxygen to the cells, a variety of physiological adaptations respond to hypoxemia and hyperoxemia. [2]

General principles of oxygen deliverytoggle arrow icon

Room air entrainment [3]

  • Definition: the admixture of room air with delivered oxygen due to a negative pressure gradient generated by either the patient or the delivery device itself
  • Consequence: FiO2 does not directly correlate with the oxygen flow rate.
  • Common situations where this may occur:

Humidified versus nonhumidified oxygen

Nonhumidified oxygen

  • Description: supplied oxygen without added moisture
  • Indications
    • Indefinite use: low-flow (≤ 4 L/minute) oxygen via nasal cannula or a mask [4]
    • Conditional use
      • High-flow oxygen (> 4 L/minute) via the upper airways: only for short-term use (up to 24 hours) [2]
      • Any oxygen via tracheostomy or other artificial airways: only in emergencies until humidified oxygen becomes available [2]
  • Advantages
    • More widely available
    • Reduced risk of bacterial contamination [5]
  • Disadvantages
    • May dry out the upper airway mucosa, leading to nose bleeds and discomfort
    • Thickens secretions, leading to difficulty clearing sputum

Humidified oxygen

  • Description: combination of oxygen delivery with a humidification device
  • Indications [2]
  • Advantages
    • Greater patient comfort
    • Does not desiccate mucus membranes
  • Disadvantages
    • Risk of bacterial contamination of humidification devices
    • Less portable

Basic oxygen delivery systemstoggle arrow icon

Oxygen delivery devices and flow rates should always be matched to patients' individual oxygen requirements, which can be varied and dynamic.

Nasal cannula [6]

  • Description: a basic oxygen delivery system consisting of two nasal prongs [6]
  • FiO2 delivered: ∼ 24–40% (1–6 L/minute)
  • Clinical applications: low oxygen saturation in patients who are not critically ill
  • Advantages
    • Well tolerated by patients
    • Allows patients to eat, drink, and speak clearly while remaining on oxygen
  • Disadvantages

Face mask

Simple oxygen face mask [6]

  • Description
    • Plastic face mask covering the nose and mouth that allows for oxygen to enter directly through a port at the bottom of the mask
    • Holes in the side of the mask allow for exhalation (as opposed to one-way valves)
    • No external reservoir bag
  • FiO2 delivered: ∼ 30–60% (5–10 L/minute) [6]
  • Advantages: Less susceptible to room air entrainment than nasal prongs
  • Disadvantages
    • Moderately variable FiO2
    • Cannot be titrated down to < 5 L/minute
    • Prevents normal eating and drinking

Venturi mask

  • Description
  • FiO2 delivered: up to 60%; in increments ranging from 24% to 60% [8]
Overview of venturi systems [9][10]
Color of port Flow rate (L/min) Maximum FiO2 deliverable
Blue 2 24%
White 4 28%
Orange 6 31%
Yellow 8 35%
Red 10 40%
Green 15 60%
  • Advantages
    • Consistent FiO2 delivery
    • Easy to titrate
    • Each port provides a fixed FiO2 concentration, reducing the risk of oxygen-induced hypercapnia.
    • Minimizes rebreathing because of the high flow of gas [8]
  • Disadvantages
    • Noisy and can affect sleep
    • Interrupts normal eating and drinking

Nonrebreather mask (NRB) [6]

  • Description
    • Plastic mask that covers the face and mouth and a reservoir bag that should be prefilled with oxygen
    • One-way valves that prevent rebreathing expired CO2
  • FiO2 delivery: ∼ 60–80% (at flow rates of 10–15 L/minute)
  • Clinical application: first-line treatment for conditions with high oxygen requirements, e.g., critically ill patients
  • Advantages
    • Prevents rebreathing of CO2
    • Rapidly and easily applied in a variety of clinical settings
  • Disadvantages


  • Description
    • A device that consists of a mask or mouthpiece, a medication reservoir, and tubing that is attached to either an air compressor or oxygen
    • Allows for administration of aerosolized medication (e.g., bronchodilators, racemic epinephrine)
  • Advantages
    • Direct delivery of medication into the lungs and airways
    • Patients can receive oxygen therapy alongside medication.
  • Disadvantages: Oxygen-driven nebulizers are typically limited to flow rates in the range of 6–8 L/minute. [11]

Advanced oxygen delivery systemstoggle arrow icon

Advanced oxygen delivery systems are indicated for patients who remain hypoxic despite treatment with basic oxygen delivery systems, and for patients with tracheostomies.

High-flow nasal cannula (HFNC) [12]

High-flow nasal cannula cannot be replicated by using high flow rates through a basic nasal cannula!

Tracheal delivery systems

Tracheostomy mask

  • Description: oxygen delivery via a small plastic dome that fits over the tracheostomy site [15]
  • FiO2 delivery: 30–80% (8–10 L/minute) [16]
  • Clinical applications: hypoxia in a patient with a tracheostomy who is not mechanically ventilated
  • Advantages
    • More comfortable than a T-piece
    • Easy to apply in emergency settings
  • Disadvantages
    • Moisture can build up on the skin around the tracheostomy site.
    • Variable FiO2 due to the loose fit on the neck


  • Description: a T-shaped connection that allows air to flow in from an oxygen supply and exhaled air to exit from the side of the connector
  • FiO2 delivery: 30–80% (8–10 L/minute) [16]
  • Clinical applications
  • Advantages
    • Less moisture collects on the skin around the tracheostomy site than with a tracheostomy collar.
    • Can deliver a higher flow rate than masks
  • Disadvantages
    • Moisture can collect in the tubing, adding to the weight of the tube and causing it to drag on the site. [15]
    • Cumbersome and restricts the patient's movements
    • If the oxygen flow rate is too low, rebreathing will occur. [18]

Transtracheal oxygen therapy (TTOT) [19]

  • Description
    • Transtracheal catheter for patients who require long-term domiciliary oxygen therapy but prefer not to use nasal cannula.
    • Hollow catheter percutaneously inserted into the trachea to deliver long-term low-flow oxygen at rates of 0.5–4 L/minute [20][21]
  • FiO2 delivery: similar to nasal cannula
  • Clinical applications: hypoxemic respiratory failure in preexisting lung disease (e.g., COPD or ILD)
  • Advantages
    • Less nasal irritation compared to long-term nasal cannula use
    • More aesthetically pleasing for patients
    • More efficient, meaning that lower oxygen flow rates can be used [20]
    • Higher compliance than nasal oxygen
  • Disadvantages
    • Can easily become clogged with mucus; patients need to clean their own catheters several times a day
    • Can cause tracheal irritation and granuloma formation
    • Requires an invasive procedure to place it

Assisted ventilation

Short-term oxygen therapytoggle arrow icon


Target oxygen saturation range

Target oxygen saturation range
Target saturation Approximate PaO2 [22] Conditions [2][23][24]
  • ≥ 100 mm Hg
94–98% [26]
  • 76–92 mm Hg
90–94% [27]
  • 60–76 mm Hg
  • 57–68 mm Hg
  • 52–57 mm Hg

General recommendations for starting oxygen [2]

Pulse oximetry [29][30]

  • Technical background
    • Oxygenated hemoglobin (O2Hb) and deoxygenated hemoglobin (HHb) exhibit different properties of light absorption
      • O2Hb: ↑ infrared light absorption, allows ↑ red light pass through the measurement site (e.g., fingertip)
      • HHb: ↑ red light absorption, allows ↑ infrared light pass through the measurement site
    • An oximeter uses LEDs (light-emitting diodes) emitting both red and infrared light → a photodetector is positioned on the other side of the finger, opposite the LEDs, and detects the amount of light (and whether it is red or infrared light) passing through the measurement site → a processing unit calculates the amount of O2Hb → oximeter displays SpO2
  • Reference range: Resting oxygen saturation > 95% is generally considered normal.
  • Monitoring
    • Should be performed for the majority of patients receiving oxygen therapy
    • Generally accurate to within 1–2 % of true SaO2 until saturations drop to < 80% [2]
    • Patients in whom pulse oximetry is inaccurate and patients at risk of hypercapnic respiratory failure should undergo regular ABGs. [2]

Pulse oximetry provides falsely high values in cases of carbon monoxide poisoning, as complexes of hemoglobin and carbon monoxide are indistinguishable from oxygen-hemoglobin complexes!

Reducing and discontinuing oxygen therapy [2]

  • Weaning
    • Titrate oxygen down if:
      • Saturations are above the target range
      • Saturations have been in the higher end of the target range for 4–8 hours
    • Recheck saturations after 5 minutes at the new oxygen flow rate.
    • Do not discontinue oxygen therapy abruptly if oxygen-induced hypercapnia occurs; this can cause a significant relapse of hypoxemia.
  • Discontinuation criteria
    • The patient is clinically stable on low-flow oxygen.
    • The patient's oxygen saturations have been within the target range on two consecutive observations.
  • Postdiscontinuation monitoring
    • After cessation, saturations should be checked at 5 minutes and then 1 hour.
    • If saturations remain within the target range after 1 hour, the patient can remain off oxygen and return to routine monitoring of vital signs.

Home oxygen therapytoggle arrow icon


  • Oxygen therapy may be provided on a long-term basis outside of a hospital for patients with chronic conditions.
  • Nasal cannula is the most common method of delivery but alternatives may be used depending on the underlying condition.
  • Home oxygen may be provided via an oxygen concentrator, compressed oxygen cylinders, or liquid oxygen, depending on patient needs and preference.


Indications for home oxygen therapy
Type of therapy [4] Conditions [32] Recommended parameters [4]

Nocturnal oxygen therapy

  • Saturations ≤ 88% on room air when ambulating, exercising, or sleeping, but saturations within target range when alert and at rest
  • Other causes of decreased saturations (e.g., obstructive sleep apnea) have been excluded. [32]
Ambulatory oxygen therapy
Palliative oxygen therapy [2]
  • Any palliative condition
Short-burst oxygen therapy

Long-term oxygen therapy [4]

  • Description
    • The most common form of home oxygen delivery
    • Treatment is typically low flow (1–2 L/minute) oxygen via nasal cannula or TTOT.
    • Typically used in advanced lung disease if patients remain chronically hypoxic despite maximal medical therapy
    • Patients prescribed LTOT should use it for a minimum of 15 hours a day. [34]
  • Monitoring
    • Start at a rate of 1 L/minute; titrate to SpO2> 90% (an ABG should be performed to confirm PaO2 is > 60 mm Hg) [32]
    • If there are signs of worsening hypercapnia, the patient should be assessed for noninvasive home ventilation. [32]
    • Patients prescribed LTOT, nocturnal, or ambulatory oxygen therapy should receive follow-up and monitoring at home after 4 weeks and after 3 months. [32]

Hyperbaric oxygentoggle arrow icon


  • Definition: intermittent treatment with 100% oxygen delivered at pressures > 1.4 atmospheres [35][36][37]
  • Typical session [38]
    • Duration: 90–120 minutes
    • Frequency: repeated twice daily for up to 30 days

Indications [37]

The use of hyperbaric oxygen treatment in treating autism spectrum disorder, multiple sclerosis, cerebral palsy, and acute stroke is not supported by evidence and should be avoided. [39]

Risks [40]

Complicationstoggle arrow icon

The two most significant complications of oxygen therapy are hyperoxemia (with associated oxygen toxicity) and oxygen-induced hypercapnia.

Hyperoxemia and oxygen toxicity [41]

Manifestations of oxygen toxicity
System Effects of hyperoxemia [45]
  • Larger infarcts, higher rates of arrhythmia, and increased risk of recurrence in MI
  • Increased mortality in postcardiac arrest patients
  • Prevention
    • Patients on oxygen therapy should be monitored with pulse oximetry, and oxygen should be titrated to ensure they remain within their target saturation range.
    • Critically ill patients should receive regular arterial blood gases.

Oxygen-induced hypercapnia [2]

Sudden cessation of oxygen therapy in hypercapnic respiratory failure can cause life-threatening rebound hypoxia!

We list the most important complications. The selection is not exhaustive.

Referencestoggle arrow icon

  1. $Contributor Disclosures - Oxygen therapy. None of the individuals in control of the content for this article reported relevant financial relationships with ineligible companies. For details, please review our full conflict of interest (COI) policy:.
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