Oxygen therapy is used to raise the blood oxygen levels in people with bronchiectasis, and can be done at home, or in a hospital or clinical setting. Oxygen gas is delivered using nasal prongs, a face mask or a tube placed in the windpipe.

Oxygen therapy and its uses

Bronchiectasis, like other respiratory illnesses that make breathing more difficult, can lower the levels of oxygen in a person’s bloodstream, leading to shortness of breath, tiredness and confusion, and potentially damaging the heart and brain. Oxygen therapy increases the amount of oxygen that enters the lungs and, from there, is carried in the blood.

Bronchiectasis patients and others with symptoms of hypoxemia (blood oxygen levels below 90%) are given tests to measure their blood oxygen levels, either via a blood sample from an artery or a pulse oximeter, to determine if oxygen therapy is needed. A sample measures arterial blood gas and is the more accurate of the two tests; an oximeter measure oxygen saturation when clipped to a finger, toe or earlobe but is less reliable as an initial test of hypoxemia, especially in people with poor blood circulation or anemia. Pulse oximeters, however, are often used to measure oxygen saturation in the blood after or during oxygen therapy.

Oxygen therapy requires a doctor’s prescription, and patients are advised to follow carefully the prescribed oxygen gas flow rate and hours of use, as too much oxygen can slow breathing. The therapy can be given for a specific period or over the long term, and the oxygen can come as a liquid or gas in a special tank. Patients using at-home oxygen therapy may also use what is known as an oxygen concentrator — a device that collects and concentrates the oxygen available in the air (normally, air is 21% oxygen).

Potential risks and side effects of oxygen therapy

Oxygen therapy is generally considered to be quite safe. But the use of oxygen itself poses a fire risk, and smoking or any open flame is not advised near a person receiving oxygen from a tank. In fact, the recommendation is to keep oxygen at least six feet (two meters) away from an open flame.

Side effects of oxygen therapy can include a dry or bloody nose, fatigue, and morning headaches.


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