Supplemental oxygen therapy helps people with COPD, COVID-19, emphysema, sleep apnea and other breathing problems get enough oxygen to function and stay well. Low blood oxygen levels (hypoxemia) can damage organs and be life-threatening. You may need oxygen therapy for life or temporarily. Healthy blood oxygen levels help you feel and sleep better.
Oxygen therapy helps people with lung diseases or breathing problems get the oxygen their bodies need to function. This oxygen is supplemental (additional) to what you breathe in from the air. You may also hear the term supplemental oxygen.
You may need oxygen therapy if you have:
People who live in or visit high-altitude areas may also need supplemental oxygen, including mountain climbers. Oxygen levels in the air are lower in high-altitude locations, which can lead to altitude sickness.
Oxygen therapy gives your body the oxygen it’s not getting when you breathe in air. You might think of it as a respiratory system aid.
When you breathe through your mouth or nose, your body takes in air. Air contains 80% nitrogen and 20% oxygen. Your lungs filter oxygen from this air. They then send oxygen through blood vessels to your organs, tissues and cells.
When you have lung problems, not enough oxygen reaches your cells to keep your body and organs working as they should. You develop low blood oxygen levels (hypoxemia). Over time, hypoxemia can lead to organ damage and organ failure. Lack of oxygen can be life-threatening.
A healthy oxygen level (also called oxygen saturation) is 95% or higher. Healthcare providers prescribe oxygen therapy when oxygen levels drop below 88%.
Providers use these tests to measure oxygen levels:
You can’t always tell when your oxygen levels are low. When symptoms occur, you may experience:
Oxygen therapy can take place just about anywhere. There are smaller-sized oxygen systems that you can take with you wherever you go (portable oxygen).
You may get oxygen therapy at:
Oxygen comes in gas or liquid form. Oxygen systems may be large and stationary for home use, or small and portable.
Types of oxygen therapy delivery systems include:
Depending on your medical condition and oxygen needs, you may get oxygen via a:
Oxygen therapy can’t cure a respiratory problem. But it can help your body get the oxygen it needs to keep organs healthy and functioning. As a result, you may:
People receiving oxygen therapy may experience these side effects:
Oxygen therapy is safe to use. While oxygen isn’t flammable, it can cause a fire to burn faster and stronger. The fire can become explosive.
For everyone’s safety, you should:
Some people with chronic conditions need supplemental oxygen for life, while others need it temporarily until they recover from an acute (short-term) illness. You should follow your healthcare provider’s instructions. Depending on your specific health needs, you may need oxygen therapy 24 hours a day. Or you might need extra oxygen only when you sleep or exercise.
Oxygen is a medication that requires a prescription from a healthcare provider. You should only use oxygen therapy as a medical treatment. If you take in more oxygen than your body needs, it can slow your breathing and heart rate to dangerous levels.
Too much oxygen can lead to oxygen toxicity or oxygen poisoning. This can happen if you accidentally take in too much supplemental oxygen or use oxygen therapy when you don’t need it.
Signs of oxygen poisoning include:
Hyperbaric oxygen therapy (HBOT) uses a special pressurized chamber to deliver 100% pure oxygen to your lungs. You go to a medical facility for this outpatient treatment.
Increased air pressure inside the chamber helps your lungs take in more oxygen. This extra oxygen can aid the healing of wounds, burns and infections.
Scuba divers and high-altitude mountain climbers may need HBOT if they develop decompression sickness (“the bends”). The condition occurs when too much nitrogen builds up in your blood and tissues.
A note from Cleveland Clinic
Oxygen therapy can be a lifesaving medical treatment when lung problems prevent you from taking in enough oxygen when you breathe. You may need supplemental oxygen all day, every day or just some of the time. Your healthcare provider can review the types of oxygen therapy delivery systems with you, so you can choose the one that best meets your needs. It’s critical to follow certain safety measures when you use oxygen therapy.
Last reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional on 06/06/2022.
Learn more about our editorial process.