Oxygen Concentrators

An oxygen concentrator is a medical device that separates nitrogen from the air around you so you can breathe up to 95% pure oxygen. You may need an oxygen concentrator if you have a condition that affects your breathing. Some oxygen concentrators are stationary and run on electricity. Others run on batteries and are portable.

Overview

What are oxygen concentrators?

Oxygen concentrators (oxygen generators) are a type of medical device that you may use as part of oxygen therapy. If you have a condition that affects your lungs or even if you have some difficulty breathing, an oxygen concentrator helps get your body the oxygen it needs to function.

Unlike a compressed or liquid oxygen tank that you must replace or refill when you run out of oxygen, an oxygen concentrator continuously purifies the air around you (atmospheric air) to deliver 90% to 95% pure oxygen. You breathe in the oxygen through a plastic mask that fits over your mouth and nose or a flexible plastic tube with two prongs that go into your nostrils (nasal cannula).

Don’t use an oxygen concentrator unless a healthcare provider prescribes one for you. Breathing in pure oxygen can cause long-term lung damage if you don’t need oxygen.

What are the types of oxygen concentrators?

There are two main types of oxygen concentrators:

  • Stationary oxygen concentrator. A stationary oxygen concentrator weighs about 22 pounds (10 kilograms). It has handles to lift the device or wheels on the bottom to roll it. It runs on electricity, so you plug it into an electrical outlet in your home. In the event of a power outage, some brands of oxygen concentrators come with a battery backup or a backup compressed oxygen tank, so you can still receive oxygen therapy until your power comes back on.
  • Portable oxygen concentrator. Portable oxygen concentrators are smaller and lighter than stationary ones, allowing for easier activity or travel. But their oxygen output is usually lower than stationary oxygen concentrators. Most portable oxygen concentrators use rechargeable lithium-ion batteries.

What conditions are treated or managed with oxygen concentrators?

A healthcare provider may prescribe an oxygen concentrator if you have:

Some people, especially athletes, use an oxygen concentrator when they visit high-altitude areas. When you work out, you breathe harder because your body is trying to get more oxygen to your lungs. Your lungs supply oxygen that your body uses to function. This includes your muscles.

If you can’t get enough oxygen through heavy breathing, your cells will convert carbohydrates into lactate (lactic acid) for short bursts of energy. The name for this process is anaerobic glycolysis. Using an oxygen concentrator helps prevent your body from producing lactic acid, which helps increase energy, reduce fatigue and improve training.

How common are oxygen concentrators?

Oxygen concentrators are common. More than 1.5 million people in the United States use some form of oxygen tank as part of their supplemental oxygen therapy, including oxygen concentrators.

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Procedure Details

How do oxygen concentrators work?

The atmospheric air that most people breathe every day is about 20% oxygen. The rest is nitrogen, along with tiny amounts of other gases. Oxygen concentrators take in atmospheric air, remove the nitrogen and collect pure oxygen for you to breathe.

First, it sucks in the atmospheric air through an air filter and forces it through an air compressor. The compressor pressurizes the air — think of it like blowing air into a balloon. As the pressure increases, the air travels into special filters. Oxygen molecules are smaller than nitrogen molecules, so the filters trap the nitrogen and let the oxygen pass through into a collection tank. The oxygen then travels to an oxygen outlet and through your mask or nasal cannula.

How many hours can you get out of an oxygen concentrator?

It depends on the make, model, oxygen output and number of batteries your oxygen concentrator uses. On average, a single-battery oxygen concentrator lasts from two to six hours. The average double-battery oxygen concentrator can last between five and 13 hours.

A plug-in oxygen concentrator runs as long as you have power in your home.

How long should you be on an oxygen concentrator?

It depends on why you need supplemental oxygen. Most people must use supplemental oxygen for at least 15 hours every day. Some people need to use it 24 hours a day. A healthcare provider will direct you on how often to use it and what your output setting should be.

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

If you have a long-term condition, you may need to use an oxygen concentrator for the rest of your life. A provider will work with you to help you adapt to living with an oxygen regulator. It may take some adjustments, but it shouldn’t interfere with your everyday activities, including working, bathing, exercising and traveling.

Risks / Benefits

What are the potential benefits of an oxygen concentrator?

The main benefit of oxygen concentrators is that they help you breathe easier. They aren’t a cure for your condition and may not completely relieve shortness of breath. But it should be easier to breathe. Higher oxygen levels in your blood can also give you more energy and help you sleep better.

Another benefit is that, unlike other types of oxygen tanks, you don’t need to refill an oxygen concentrator. You’ll have an unlimited oxygen supply as long as you have an energy source.

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What are the disadvantages of oxygen concentrators?

Oxygen concentrators must have a power source. If you use an oxygen concentrator, it’s a good idea to have at least one set of fully charged batteries or a compressed oxygen tank available in case your power goes out. You should have enough batteries or extra oxygen available for at least a few days.

Pure oxygen can also be dangerous. It isn’t flammable. But it makes fire burn hotter and faster. It can also cause an explosion. Make sure you keep your oxygen concentrator at least 10 feet away from sources of high temperatures or 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®).

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:

  • Hair dryers.
  • Electric blankets.
  • Space heaters.
  • Electric razors.
  • Vape pens.

When to Call the Doctor

When should I call a healthcare provider?

While using supplemental oxygen, you should call a healthcare provider if you have symptoms of receiving too much oxygen (oxygen poisoning) or too little oxygen (hypoxia).

Oxygen poisoning symptoms include:

Hypoxia symptoms include:

  • Restlessness.
  • Confusion.
  • Headaches.
  • Slow heart rate (bradycardia).
  • A blue tint to your skin, lips, gums, nails or around your eyes (cyanosis).

It’s a good idea to get a pulse oximeter (pulse ox) if you use an oxygen concentrator. A pulse ox is a small, painless clip that you place on a finger or toe to measure your blood oxygen levels.

You should also contact a provider if you think your oxygen concentrator isn’t working properly. Many oxygen concentrators send an alert once the oxygen purity goes below 80%. Have a provider routinely check your oxygen concentrator to ensure it works correctly.

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Additional Common Questions

What is the difference between an oxygen concentrator and an oxygen machine?

An oxygen machine (mechanical ventilation) is a medical device that breathes for you when you can’t breathe on your own. It’s a form of life support.

Should I buy my own oxygen concentrator?

It depends on your condition and situation.

The up-front cost of purchasing an oxygen concentrator can be high. Many oxygen concentrators have warranties that cover normal repairs. But you may need to pay for a professional to service or maintain your device. If you have a short-term condition that requires the use of an oxygen concentrator, it may be better to rent one.

If you have a long-term condition, purchasing an oxygen concentrator may be cheaper over time than renting. Another benefit to owning an oxygen concentrator is that you’re getting a brand-new device. If you rent one, it’s often in used condition. It may be nearing the end of its life cycle or vulnerable to breaking or failure.

Talk to a healthcare provider. They can recommend the best oxygen concentrator for you according to your condition, situation and lifestyle.

A note from Cleveland Clinic

Oxygen concentrators are medical devices that help you take in oxygen if you have a condition that affects your lungs. You may also benefit from using an oxygen concentrator if you spend time in a high-altitude area. Whether you’re using it every day or just sometimes, it may take some time to get comfortable. A healthcare provider will help you adjust to using an oxygen concentrator so it doesn’t interfere with your regular activities. If you have any questions or concerns, a provider is available to help.

Medically Reviewed

Last reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional on 08/04/2023.

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