Oxygen Tanks

Oxygen tanks are medical devices that store supplemental oxygen. You may need an oxygen tank if you have a lung condition that affects your breathing. There are three main types of oxygen tanks: compressed oxygen, liquid oxygen and oxygen concentrator. A healthcare provider will teach you how to use your oxygen tank.


What are oxygen tanks?

Oxygen tanks are large metal cylinders that store oxygen under pressure (compressed oxygen). They’re part of oxygen therapy. If you have a lung condition or difficulty breathing, oxygen tanks help your body get the oxygen it needs to function.

The oxygen may be in gas or liquid form. The tanks come in many different sizes. Some are large and difficult to move, so you only use them in a hospital setting or at home. Others are small, so you can take them with you when you go out. You receive the oxygen either through a plastic mask that fits over your nose and mouth or a flexible plastic tube with two prongs that go into your nostrils (nasal cannula).

What are the types of oxygen tanks?

The main types of oxygen tanks include:

  • Compressed oxygen. The atmospheric air most people breathe every day consists of about 20% oxygen. The rest is nitrogen, along with small amounts of other gases. Compressed oxygen gas is at least 99.5% oxygen. A compressed oxygen tank has a gauge on the top that tells you how much gas is in the tank. A regulator allows you to breathe in compressed oxygen when you inhale and stops as you exhale.
  • Liquid oxygen. A liquid oxygen tank carries 100% oxygen as a very cold liquid. Oxygen turns into a liquid at -297 degrees Fahrenheit (-182.8 degrees Celsius). Manufacturers then compress it into a liquid oxygen tank. When you release the oxygen from the tank, it turns into gas. You must be careful around liquid oxygen. Accidental exposure can cause cryogenic burns (a burn from extremely cold temperatures) or frostbite.
  • Oxygen concentrator. Oxygen concentrators create purified air by pulling air around you, separating and compressing the oxygen and removing the nitrogen. They run on electricity — you can either plug them into a wall or use batteries. Unlike compressed oxygen or liquid oxygen, you don’t have to refill a tank to get oxygen.

What conditions are treated or managed with oxygen tanks?

Oxygen tanks can help if you have:

Using an oxygen tank also doesn’t require you to have a condition that affects your breathing. Some people use oxygen tanks when they visit high-altitude areas. This includes athletes.


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Procedure Details

How do I use an oxygen tank?

  • Your oxygen tank should come with a type of sleeve or carrier. Make sure the tank is in the carrier and in a secure position.
  • A regulator fits on the valve on top of the oxygen tank. It tells you how much oxygen is in the tank. When the needle is in the green area, the tank is full. The needle will gradually move to the red area as you use your oxygen tank. Once it reaches the red area, the tank is empty.
  • A healthcare provider will tell you how much oxygen you need. Adjust the knob on the side of the regulator to the prescribed amount.
  • Your oxygen tank should have a small wrench that hangs off the top. Use the wrench to open and close the valve and adjust the regulator. Turn it to the left to open and to the right to tighten it. There’s an outlet on the side of the regulator. Listen or feel for oxygen flow on the outlet nub. Adjust the valve and regulator with the wrench if you don’t hear or feel oxygen.
  • Attach your nasal cannula or oxygen mask to the outlet.
  • Adjust the tubes for the nasal cannula or oxygen mask. Secure them behind your ears (like eyeglasses). You can place the rest of the tubes under your chin or behind your head.
  • Turn off the airflow when you’re not using your oxygen tank.

All portable oxygen tanks have the same basic valve shape and size. Once you learn how to use one type of oxygen tank, you should also be able to use other types.

It’s a good idea to keep your oxygen tank equipment clean to help prevent illness or infection:

  • Wash your plastic tubing at least once a week with soap and water.
  • Replace your nasal cannula or mask at least once a month.
  • Replace your nasal cannula or mask after you’re sick.

How long will I need to use oxygen tanks?

It depends on why you need to use an oxygen tank.

If you have a short-term condition, you may only need an oxygen tank until you recover.

If you have a long-lasting condition, you may need to use an oxygen tank for the rest of your life. A healthcare provider will work with you to adjust to living with an oxygen tank so it doesn’t interfere with your normal activities, including work, bathing, exercising and traveling.

How common are oxygen tanks?

Oxygen tanks are common. More than 1.5 million people in the United States use oxygen tanks as part of their supplemental oxygen therapy.

Risks / Benefits

What are the potential benefits of using oxygen tanks?

The main benefit of using an oxygen tank is that it helps you breathe easier. It isn’t a cure and might not completely relieve shortness of breath. But it should make it easier for you to breathe.

Other benefits include:

  • More energy. Your mind and body can feel tired if you’re not getting enough oxygen. An oxygen tank can deliver more oxygen to your bloodstream, increasing your energy levels and allowing you to be more active, including exercise.
  • Sleep better. More oxygen in your blood allows you to sleep better at night.

How long can you live with an oxygen tank?

It depends on what condition requires you to use an oxygen tank. Many people lead long, active lifestyles while using an oxygen tank. Talk to a healthcare provider. They can give you an estimate according to your specific situation.

Can you refill an oxygen tank at home?

You can refill an oxygen concentrator at home as long as you have electricity or batteries to run it. Home oxygen refill systems also allow you to fill compressed air oxygen tanks from home. They compress air from the room around you. It can take up to a few hours to fill a tank.

You can also schedule oxygen tank deliveries through a hospital or medical equipment supplier.

Can anyone fill an oxygen tank?

No, you need a prescription from a healthcare provider to get and fill an oxygen tank.


What are the risks or complications of using oxygen tanks?

Oxygen isn’t flammable. But it makes fire burn hotter and faster and can result in an explosion. Make sure you keep your oxygen tank at least 10 feet away from open flames, sources of high temperatures and flammable materials, including:

  • Cigarettes and cigars.
  • Fires.
  • Ovens.
  • Grills.
  • Gasoline.
  • Oil.
  • Paints and paint thinner.
  • Rubbing alcohol.
  • Oil-based products, such as petroleum jelly (Vaseline®).

It’s a good idea to put “No smoking” signs around the entrances of your home. If you need a topical or lubricating ointment, use a water-based product, such as K-Y Jelly®.

You should also avoid using electrical equipment around your oxygen tank. There’s a risk that electrical equipment can spark and cause a fire. This includes items such as:

  • Hairdryers.
  • Electric blankets.
  • Space heaters.
  • Electric razors.
  • Vape pens.

If you use an oxygen concentrator, it’s a good idea to keep at least one extra set of fully charged batteries handy in case your power goes out. You should have enough batteries available to run your oxygen concentrator for a few days.

Oxygen tanks can also be heavy. A falling oxygen tank can cause an injury or break. If it breaks, escaping air could send the tank soaring through the air. Always secure your oxygen tank in a carrier or cart.

Avoid contact with liquid oxygen. Exposure to your skin can cause cryogenic burns or frostbite.

When To Call the Doctor

When should I call a healthcare provider?

While using an oxygen tank, you should call a healthcare provider if you have symptoms that affect your breathing, as well as:

These are signs of oxygen poisoning. Oxygen poisoning is when breathing in too much supplemental oxygen damages your lungs.

You should also contact a healthcare provider if you think your oxygen tank or regulator isn’t working properly. Have a provider check your tanks at least twice a year to ensure they work correctly.


Additional Common Questions

Do you need a prescription for an oxygen tank?

Yes, you need a prescription from a healthcare provider to get an oxygen tank.

Can you buy oxygen tanks?

You can’t buy oxygen tanks over the counter. If you need a new oxygen tank, reach out to a healthcare provider or a medical supply company.

A note from Cleveland Clinic

If you have a condition that affects your breathing or are going to spend time in a high-altitude area, you may need an oxygen tank. Using a nasal cannula or an oxygen mask may be uncomfortable at first. And transporting a portable tank may require some adjustments. But an oxygen tank shouldn’t prevent you from participating in many of your regular activities. Talk to a healthcare provider if you have any questions or feelings of uncertainty. They can help you acclimate to using an oxygen tank.

Medically Reviewed

Last reviewed on 08/04/2023.

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