Home oxygen therapy involves breathing in air that contains more oxygen than normal from a cylinder or machine in your home.

It may be prescribed if you have a heart or lung condition that causes low oxygen levels in your blood.

This page covers:

How to use oxygen therapy

How oxygen therapy can help

Oxygen therapy assessment

Oxygen cylinders

Oxygen concentrator machine

Portable (ambulatory) oxygen

Going on holiday

Safety advice

Home oxygen suppliers

How to use oxygen therapy

You can take oxygen in a number of ways using a:

  • tube positioned under your nose (nasal cannula)
  • face mask placed over your nose and mouth
  • tube placed into your mouth and down your windpipe

The tube or mask is attached to a ventilator machine.

How home oxygen therapy can help

If you have a health condition that causes low levels of oxygen in your blood, you may feel breathless and tired, particularly after walking or coughing. Fluid may also build up around your ankles.

Breathing air with a high concentration of oxygen increases the amount of oxygen in your blood. This makes it easier to carry out activities that might otherwise be difficult, and helps reduce the above symptoms.

Oxygen therapy also helps prevent damage to the heart and brain, which can be caused by low levels of blood oxygen. 

It can help people with a range of health conditions, such as:

People who have oxygen therapy have different requirements. For example, you may only need oxygen for short periods during the day when you're walking about (ambulatory oxygen), or you may need it for longer periods during the day and night.

Oxygen therapy assessment

If you have a long-term condition and your doctor thinks oxygen therapy might be helpful, you'll be asked to visit your nearest oxygen clinic for an assessment.

The amount of oxygen in your blood will be measured by taking a blood sample from your earlobe or wrist, or by attaching a sensor to your finger (a pulse oximetry test). You may also be asked to breathe into a device called a spirometer during a spirometry test.

If your blood oxygen level is low, regular oxygen treatment may be recommended.

If you decide to have oxygen treatment at home, a healthcare professional at the clinic will help you work out how much oxygen you’ll need and for how long. They'll also discuss the different ways you can take it.

Once you've agreed this with the clinic, they'll complete a home oxygen order form for you. It's similar to a prescription and sent to the company delivering your oxygen and equipment.

You'll be asked to fill in a consent form. This is because the oxygen clinic will need to share some information about you with other NHS organisations.

An engineer will visit you at home to install the equipment and explain how to use it. New supplies of oxygen will also need to be delivered, and the equipment will need to be checked every so often.

Oxygen cylinders

Oxygen cylinders will probably be prescribed if you only need oxygen for short periods to relieve attacks of breathlessness after an illness.

Oxygen is breathed in through a face mask or soft tube inserted into your nose (nasal cannula). You can talk, eat and drink while using a nasal cannula.

The use of oxygen cylinders should be regularly reviewed, and treatment should be stopped if your blood oxygen levels have returned to normal.

Oxygen concentrator machine

An oxygen concentrator machine is suitable if you would benefit from having oxygen for many hours a day, including while you're asleep. It ensures you have a source of oxygen that never runs out.

The machine is about 75cm (two-and-a-half feet) high and plugs into an electrical socket. It filters oxygen from the air in the room and delivers it through plastic tubes to a mask or nasal cannula.

Long tubing can be fixed around the floor or skirting board of your house, with two points where you can "plug in" to the oxygen supply.

When the machine is installed, the engineer or nurse will discuss the length of tubing needed. The machine is very quiet and compact. The engineer will explain how to use it and answer any questions you have.

A back-up oxygen machine will also be provided in case the first one breaks down, and regular maintenance checks will be carried out to ensure the concentrator is always working properly.

Portable (ambulatory) oxygen

It may be possible to use a small, portable oxygen cylinder outside your home. This is called portable oxygen or ambulatory oxygen.

You’ll need to be assessed to see whether you're able to use portable oxygen and whether it's likely to be helpful. For example, it isn't recommended for people who smoke or have heart failure.

Portable cylinders can deliver oxygen at a rate of two litres a minute (some cylinders allow the flow to be increased to up to four litres a minute). Your lung specialist or oxygen healthcare professional will be able to advise you about the flow of oxygen you need.

When full, portable oxygen cylinders weigh just over 2.3kg (five pounds) and hold just under two hours of oxygen (at a rate of two litres a minute).

Going on holiday

As long as you're well enough to travel and you plan in advance, you should be able to go on holiday while using oxygen.

Speak to your GP as soon as possible if you're thinking about going on holiday, particularly if you want to go abroad. They can advise you about what you need to do to stay safe while you're away. For example, you'll need to take your usual medication and a copy of your home oxygen order form.

Before travelling, you should tell the travel company that you use oxygen because they may need to make certain arrangements in advance. Travel insurance is essential.

If you're going on holiday in England or Wales, talk to your oxygen supplier to see whether it's possible for oxygen to be delivered to your destination. Try to give them as much notice as possible.

The British Lung Foundation website has more information and advice about going on holiday with a lung condition. You can also read more about what you need to consider before you travel.

Safety advice

Oxygen is a fire hazard, so if you're using oxygen at home you need to take precautions. For example:

  • never let anyone smoke while you're using oxygen
  • keep oxygen at least six feet away from flames or heat sources, such as gas cookers and gas heaters
  • don't use flammable liquids, such as cleaning fluid, paint thinner or aerosols while using oxygen
  • keep a fire extinguisher within easy reach at home
  • install fire alarms and smoke detectors in your home and make sure they're working 
  • inform your local fire brigade that you have oxygen at home
  • keep oxygen cylinders upright to prevent them being damaged

Home oxygen suppliers

There are four companies in England that provide home oxygen services for the NHS and each covers a certain geographical area.

Your oxygen treatment clinic will organise your oxygen supply from one of the suppliers below.

  • Baywater Healthcare: covers Yorkshire and Humberside, West Midlands and Wales (0800 373 580)
  • BOC: covers the East and North East of England (0800 136 603)
  • Dolby Vivisol: covers the South of England (0800 917 9840)
  • Air Liquide: Call them on:
    • 0808 143 9991 for London
    • 0808 143 9992 for North West
    • 0808 143 9993 for East Midlands
    • 0808 143 9999 for South West

Page last reviewed: 27/04/2017

Next review due: 27/04/2020