Oxygen therapy

When could I be referred for oxygen therapy?

You may have been diagnosed with a lung condition and have the right medication but still feel very out of breath. It may be time for your health care professional to investigate if your blood oxygen levels are low.

This involves an assessment and then, if needed, oxygen therapy being prescribed. There are also times when you could have your treatment reviewed

You can be referred for assessment by:

  • your GP or practice nurse
  • community services such as the community respiratory team, community matron or physiotherapist
  • your hospital doctor - if you have been in hospital after a flare-up of your condition, or you are newly diagnosed with a lung condition
  • an occupational health department if you work
  • a private health care provider

Before you are referred for assessment, you’ll have a simple test, called pulse oximetry, to make sure that an assessment for oxygen is right for you. If your oxygen levels falls below a certain percentage, and your health care professional thinks oxygen therapy could help, you may be referred to the home oxygen assessment and review service.

You may also be asked to take an exercise or walking test. This assesses your oxygen needs,  if your blood oxygen levels only fall when you’re active.  You may be asked to walk for 6 minutes up and down an indoor corridor or to climb a few stairs. If you need to, you can stop and rest. Or you may be asked to do is to walk for a short time around some cones placed on the floor. Your pace will be set by a series of beeps that will get faster. When you are unable to keep up with the beeps, the test will end. 

You should expect to receive:

  • an appointment for assessment within 6 weeks of being referred
  • a telephone call to confirm your attendance and that you are well enough for an assessment the day before your appointment

You will be asked about your smoking habits at your oxygen assessment and, if you smoke, offered advice on quitting.

Top tip

If you have any questions, give our friendly helpline a call on 03000 030 555 or email [email protected].

How will I be assessed?

You will be assessed by a health care professional who will be able to administer the right amount of oxygen for you. This may be your respiratory nurse, a physiotherapist or an occupational therapist either in the hospital or the community. They will know the equipment provided by the local oxygen supplier. You will be advised who your first point of contact is for oxygen-related questions.

The assessment can happen in a variety of places. You can sometimes be assessed while you are in hospital. You may be assessed at home if your condition is very severe and this service is available in your area.

The assessment will take up to an hour and a half.


Pulse oximetry

If you have not already had a pulse oximetry test, this will be done first to make sure you are suitable for the assessment.

Blood tests

You will have blood tests to measure how well your lungs can provide oxygen to your body and remove waste products such as carbon dioxide.

Blood is usually taken from an artery in your wrist and then pressure is applied to where the blood was taken from for several minutes to stop any more bleeding. Sometimes blood is taken from your ear lobe instead. The blood sample is sent to the laboratory to be tested while you wait.

You may then be asked to breathe oxygen through a mask over your face, or through some tubing in your nose, for at least 30 minutes before a second blood sample is taken.

In some cases, you may need a second appointment 4 to 6 weeks later for a second blood test. This is to check that you have consistently low levels of oxygen in your blood before a decision is made.

Exercise or walking tests

You may also have an exercise or walking test.

Once the test results have been reviewed you will be told if oxygen therapy is right for you.

If the blood tests show that you have too much carbon dioxide in your blood, you may need to see a specialist to review your condition before you are assessed again.

If you have advanced disease, oxygen may be prescribed by your palliative care team. This may be for your use at home or in a hospice or nursing home. At this stage, oxygen can help relieve any distress that can occur when breathing is difficult.

What happens if I need oxygen therapy?

  • You will be given an explanation of what happens next and the choices you have.
  • You will be given information and training about using oxygen in a language you and your family or carers understand.
  • You will be shown the different types of equipment and try them out to see which is best for you. Ask your health care professional to explain which delivery method is best for you and why. Your prescription can be changed later if you need a different oxygen therapy.
  • You might be asked if you need help with daily living from your local health care team or social services. If you do need help, someone will come to see you at home.
  • Your GP will be told the result of your assessment and that you have been prescribed oxygen.
  • If you smoke, you will be offered support to help you quit.

When will my oxygen therapy be reviewed?

Clinical guidelines for oxygen assessment and review of specific lung conditions vary. Depending upon the nature and stability of your condition your oxygen therapy may be reassessed every 3 to 6 months.

If you have a respiratory tract infection or a flare-up, your health care professional will usually review your oxygen therapy promptly and you may need to be hospitalised. If your oxygen was adjusted following a flare-up or lung infection you may be reviewed again within 6 weeks to see if any more adjustment is needed.

In some conditions, if your health care professional notices you are improving, it might be possible to stop your oxygen therapy.

If you experience new symptoms such as a headache, or you can’t think straight and are drowsier or sleepier, tell your health care professional. You might have too much carbon dioxide in your blood.

Next: How is oxygen delivered? >

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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.