Understanding Oxygen Therapy in the Hospital

We need to breathe in oxygen through our lungs for our bodies to work and be healthy. In the hospital, some people need oxygen therapy if they are not breathing in enough oxygen on their own. This is also called supplemental oxygen. It's a way to get more oxygen into your body.

What is oxygen therapy?

The air we breathe has about 21% oxygen. Oxygen therapy means getting extra oxygen through a plastic mask or nose tube (nasal cannula). The mask fits over your nose and mouth. Or a nasal cannula sits under your nose and small prongs gently sit in each nostril. They are connected to an oxygen supply outlet in the wall or an oxygen tank. Oxygen flows through the mask or nasal cannula as you breathe normally.

Oxygen therapy is prescribed like a medicine. It’s given in measured amounts. The healthcare team figures out how much oxygen you need. They monitor your body’s oxygen levels while you’re on it. They adjust the amount of oxygen as needed.

How is body oxygen measured?

Your body’s level of oxygen is measured with a pulse oximeter. This is a small, painless device clipped to 1 of your fingers or toes. The device shines light through your skin to measure the amount of oxygen in your blood. You will either wear this device continually or have your oxygen checked a few times a day. Sometimes you may need a blood test to check your oxygen level. This is called an arterial blood gas (ABG) test. Blood is drawn from an artery, often in your wrist.

Why some people need oxygen therapy

Oxygen is vital for the healthy function of the body. You need oxygen to keep your organs and other tissues healthy and alive. If you are not breathing in enough oxygen on your own, your healthcare team will prescribe oxygen therapy.

This may be needed for reasons such as:

  • A lung infection

  • A heart problem

  • Injuries that make it hard or painful to breathe fully

  • A chronic lung disease like COPD

You may not know that you need extra oxygen. Some people don’t have symptoms of low oxygen. For other people, symptoms can include:

  • Feeling tired

  • Feeling short of breath

  • Headache

  • Fast heart rate

  • Blue color in lips and skin

How much oxygen do you need?

The healthcare team will look at your pulse oximeter reading. They will also consider the results of any other tests you had, such as ABGs or lung function tests.

The amount of oxygen is based on these results. Too low a dose of oxygen may not help enough. Too high a dose of oxygen can actually cause breathing problems. Because of this:

  • Your oxygen levels are watched closely.

  • The healthcare team adjusts your oxygen supply carefully.

  • You do not adjust your own oxygen.

Your healthcare provider may prescribe different amounts of oxygen for when you are resting and during activity. Some people need oxygen only while sleeping. Your healthcare team can tell you when you need oxygen.

While you are on oxygen therapy

  • Relax and breathe normally. You don’t need to change your breathing while on oxygen therapy.

  • Don’t remove your mask or nasal cannula, even if you feel OK. If either of these fall off, put it back on or call for a nurse.

  • Take care with the tube connected to your mask or nasal cannula. Hold it carefully in your hand when you need to move in bed or get up and walk. Make sure the tube doesn’t come loose from the wall outlet or tank. Ask your nurse to show you how to move safely while on oxygen.

  • Your nose may feel dry or bleed. This can happen even though the oxygen has some moisture in it. Tell your healthcare team if you experience this. They may be able to humidify the oxygen or find a safe lubricant for you to use. Not all lubricants are safe while on oxygen. For example, petroleum jelly is flammable and should not be used.

  • Tell a nurse or doctor if you feel out of breath. Don’t adjust any dials or knobs connected to your oxygen system.

  • Make sure visitors don’t light matches or lighters. Pure oxygen is very flammable. This means it can cause a fire quickly.

  • Never smoke while using oxygen.

When you go home

In many cases, oxygen therapy ends before a person leaves the hospital. Your healthcare team will tell you if you need to stay on oxygen when you go home. This may be done with a portable device. They will give you instructions for how to use oxygen at home if needed.

© 2000-2024 The StayWell Company, LLC. All rights reserved. This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare professional's instructions.
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