Oxygen therapy

How is oxygen delivered?

All oxygen equipment is supplied by one of 4 suppliers according to where you live in the UK.

All oxygen must be prescribed by a registered health care professional and ordered on a home oxygen order form (HOOF). You will be asked to sign a home oxygen consent form (HOCF). The forms are sent to the supplier providing oxygen in your area. You will also need to give permission for your medical and contact details to be shared with the supplier. The company will then supply all the equipment you need to your home. An engineer will install the equipment and explain to you or a relative or friend how to use it.

You will receive your oxygen through one, or a combination, of:

All these oxygen systems are available on the NHS once you have been assessed. Some people choose to purchase their own portable concentrators. Talk to your respiratory team before doing this. It is also important to consult a reputable provider and trial the device before you buy one.

Nasal cannulae and face masks 

You can receive your oxygen therapy through either nasal cannulae or a face mask. Nasal cannulae bring oxygen from your concentrator or cylinder to your nose through flexible tubing. The tubing loops around your ears.

An oxygen mask is held over your nose and mouth by plastic straps around your head. The oxygen is delivered through tubing that is connected to the mask. 

Man with oxygen
Man wearing nasal cannulae
Woman with oxygen
Woman using a face mask

How is the oxygen breathed in?

You can breathe in the oxygen from its container either through nasal cannulae or a face mask. A nasal cannulae can be used to deliver 7 litres of oxygen a minute comfortably. If you need a higher rate of oxygen, humidified high-flow oxygen through a nasal cannula may be available. Discuss this with your respiratory specialist.

Nasal cannulae are made of plastic or silicone and are lightweight. You keep them in place by looping the tubing round your ears. People generally prefer them to face masks as they are more comfortable and deliver oxygen continuously into the nose. If your cannulae are uncomfortable, ask your supplier if they have different options.

A simple oxygen face mask is useful if you have nasal irritation or nose bleeds. You may find a face mask easier if you always breathe through your mouth. But a face mask can feel uncomfortable and confining and is a little more conspicuous. If you need better control of oxygen concentration at certain flow rates, your health care professional might suggest that you try a venturi face mask.

Oxygen concentrators

An oxygen concentrator is a machine, about the size of a bedside table, which you plug into your usual household electricity supply. It extracts oxygen from room air and delivers it to you by plastic tubing to a nasal cannula or to a face mask. Long tubing can also be fixed around the floor or skirting board, both upstairs and downstairs, so that you can have oxygen around your entire house.

Rooms where you have an oxygen concentrator should be well ventilated. Don’t worry - there will be plenty of oxygen left in the room for others to breathe!

The supplier of your oxygen service will reimburse money towards your electricity bill to pay for the supply that the concentrator uses. A back-up cylinder of oxygen is also provided in case of a power cut. An engineer will visit regularly to make sure the concentrator is working correctly.

Portable concentrators are also available for when you are outside your home, if you need ambulatory oxygen.

Occasionally, oxygen therapy might cause your nose to get dry or sore. Do not use Vaseline or any petroleum-based product to relieve this, since they can be flammable. A softer nasal cannula may be available. You should only use water-based products inside your nose or on your hands and face, such as K-Y jelly. Check with your pharmacist or health care professional if you need advice on what products, including sunscreen, you can use.

Oxygen cylinders

Oxygen cylinders contain compressed oxygen. They are provided with tubing and a nasal cannula or a face mask, delivered to your home and replaced when empty. They provide oxygen for variable lengths of time, up to 8 hours depending on the size of the cylinder and the flow rate of oxygen you have been prescribed. These cylinders are generally used for emergencies or for back-up.

Portable or ambulatory oxygen

Your respiratory team may assess you for portable or ambulatory oxygen for when you exert yourself. If you are already on long-term oxygen therapy you may also need to use oxygen when you go out. Depending on your oxygen needs, you may be prescribed:

  • portable oxygen cylinders

These oxygen cylinders weigh about 2 to 3 kg (6 to 7 lbs) and come with a carrying case. The oxygen in them lasts for up to 3 hours, depending on the flow rate. The higher the flow rate, the shorter the period they will last.  As with any oxygen equipment, portable cylinders must be used according to the manufacturer’s safety instructions to avoid a fire risk. Some suppliers may have lighter weight cylinders available – ask if they would be suitable for you if you find the cylinders heavy. Your supplier may also be able to provide you with an oxygen trolley with wheels.

  • conserving devices

A conserving device is attached to a portable oxygen cylinder to make the supply last longer by giving you a pulse of oxygen only when you breathe in. This makes the oxygen last longer, but is not suitable for everyone as it cannot supply high levels of oxygen. Your health care professional can tell you if this device is suitable for you.

Liquid oxygen

Liquid oxygen may be suitableif you use portable oxygen a lot, or need such high flows that cylinders do not last long. It is delivered and decanted into a tank in your home. This tank will be replaced by your supplier when it is nearly empty.

Liquid oxygen tanks must be housed in a very well-ventilated room, garage or shed There must be no items around likely to catch fire. The tanks are used to fill portable oxygen cylinders, which contain a longer supply of oxygen than the usual portable cylinders. Liquid oxygen is very cold – take care when decanting it.

It is your responsibility to inform your oxygen supplier when you need more oxygen cylinders or liquid oxygen tanks.

Top tips

  •  Bathroom activities can be exhausting. Use a towelling robe after a shower or bath, as you’ll user less energy than drying yourself with a towel. Plan how you can get oxygen the moment you need it. You could keep an extra cylinder to hand with tubing already attached so that all you need to do is switch it on.
  • If you use ambulatory oxygen only, after you have finished walking, sit for a few minutes before disconnecting yourself from the oxygen.

Help and support

Home oxygen suppliers

Air Liquide:

  • 0808 143 9991 for London
  • 0808 143 9992 for the north-west England
  • 0808 143 9993 for east Midlands
  • 0808 143 9999 for the south-west England

Baywater Healthcare covers Yorkshire and Humberside, west Midlands, north-west England and Wales.

  • 0800 373 580

BOC covers  east and north-east England and Northern Ireland.  

  • 0800 136 603

Dolby Vivisol covers the south of England.

  • 0500 823 773.

Dolby Vivisol also covers Scotland.

  • 0800 833 531

We have online information about travelling with a lung condition or call our helpline on 03000 030 555.

The European Lung Foundation also maintains a database of numerous airline oxygen policies for passengers.

Next: Life with oxygen therapy >

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Last medically reviewed: February 2018. Due for review: February 2021

This information uses the best available medical evidence and was produced with the support of people living with lung conditions. Find out how we produce our information. If you’d like to see our references get in touch.