Lung function decline is a defining characteristic of COPD, and it gets worse as the disease progresses. Because of this, most COPD patients eventually have to begin using supplemental oxygen to help their lungs once they become too weak to absorb enough oxygen on their own.
The purpose of supplemental oxygen is to deliver extremely oxygen-rich air to your lungs, usually using a pressurized oxygen tank or an oxygen concentrator. This air, generally about 85-95 percent pure oxygen, allows your lungs absorb more oxygen with every breath.
Supplemental oxygen is a very important part of COPD treatment because it helps your lungs take in enough oxygen to supply your organs and tissues with the oxygen they need. Without it, your blood oxygen saturation can fall to unhealthy levels—a condition called hypoxemia—which can lead to serious, life-threatening complications over time.
Supplemental oxygen is also important for treating acute COPD symptoms, and can help you when you feel breathless from exercising or when your symptoms flare up. Many patients also use supplemental oxygen when they sleep to treat low blood oxygen levels during the night.
Despite how often supplemental oxygen is used and prescribed, it can be dangerous if you don't understand the risks. Oxygen is highly flammable, and you have to take special precautions when you use it to reduce the risk of a fire.
Even though they are rare, oxygen leaks and major fires can happen if you don't practice proper oxygen safety. High oxygen levels can make objects that wouldn't usually be a risk highly flammable, such as grease and oily creams. It also causes fires to burn hotter and spread faster than they normally would.
Even small sparks or flames can can cause combustion when there's excess oxygen in the air, which is why it's so important to understand how to use your oxygen safely and minimize the risks.
In this article we're going to show you how to practice proper oxygen safety so you can avoid accidents, injuries, or fires from using supplemental oxygen. We'll explain the benefits and risks of oxygen therapy, how to minimize fire hazards, and tell you how to follow proper safety protocols when using, storing, and transporting your oxygen.
If you or a loved one uses oxygen therapy to treat COPD or another respiratory condition, then it's important for you to know how to use supplemental oxygen as safely as possible. This guide will teach you the basics and provide you with a variety of valuable tips you can use in your everyday life if you are prescribed supplemental oxygen.
The Potential Dangers of Using Supplemental Oxygen
Before we discuss how to use oxygen safely, it's important to understand the potential risks. If you know what to look out for, you're less likely to make a dangerous mistake.
The main immediate danger that supplemental oxygen poses is its flammability. When oxygen leaks out into the air from your tank, nasal cannula, or mask, it can raise oxygen levels in the room or in your immediate area, which significantly increases the flammability of everything nearby.
A certain amount of leakage from your nose and nasal cannula is inevitable, meaning there is a constant flammability risk when you use your supplemental oxygen. That's why you have to take a variety of fire-safe precautions any time oxygen is in use, even if your oxygen tank isn't nearby.
It is also important to make sure that all the oxygen from the tank goes straight into your lungs through your mask or nasal cannula instead of leaking into the air. Leaky tanks, faulty valves, and carelessness when opening and closing the valve can make the surrounding air extremely flammable, putting you, your belongings, and others nearby at risk.
Standard oxygen tanks, the most common type of equipment used to provide supplemental oxygen, pose hazards of their own, as well. The oxygen must be highly pressurized when it's stored in the tank, which means oxygen tanks can explode violently or “take off like a rocket” if the container is somehow damaged and ruptured.
You can avoid this danger by using an oxygen concentrator machine, but they tend to be pricier and harder to come by. Many patients don't have access to anything other than pressurized or liquid oxygen tanks because their budget, insurance, or medicare provider won't cover it.
The Benefits of Using Supplemental Oxygen
Despite the risks, supplemental oxygen is generally very safe to use as long as you use it carefully and as directed. It's also a very important part of treatment for people with COPD and other respiratory conditions who can't get enough oxygen to stay healthy on their own.
By raising your blood oxygen levels and taking some of the strain off your lungs, supplemental oxygen therapy can significantly improve COPD symptoms like breathlessness, coughing, wheezing, and fatigue. It can also help you be more active and participate in more of life's activities by making it easier to walk, exercise, and keep your symptoms under control.
Here are some more of the benefits you can gain from supplemental oxygen therapy:
- Improved mood and mental alertness
- Improved exercise ability and exercise endurance
- Improved energy and reduced fatigue
- Improved cardiovascular function
- Reduced hypoxemia and risk of hypoxia
- Improved sleep
- Reduced breathlessness
- Reduced risk of COPD complications including pulmonary hypertension and heart failure
- Overall improved quality of life
It's hard to overstate the importance of supplemental oxygen for COPD. If you doctor prescribes oxygen to you, it's vital that you use it exactly as directed according to your treatment plan.
Many patients don't follow their supplemental oxygen treatment regimen well enough because of inconvenience, aesthetics, or discomfort, but not using your oxygen as directed can worsen your COPD and lead to life-threatening complications, including heart failure. Talk to your doctor if you are having trouble using your oxygen or sticking to your treatment plan.
Tips for Using Oxygen Safely
Now that you better understand the benefits and potential risks of oxygen therapy, we're going to show you how to practice proper oxygen safety. There are many important precautions that everyone who uses supplemental oxygen must take in order to reduce the likelihood of fires and burns.
In the next sections, we'll give you a variety of tips for preventing oxygen leaks and minimizing fire hazards in your home. We'll explain all the different flammable substances and spark risks that you should look out for and how to safely cook while using oxygen at home.
We'll also give you advice on how to store and transport your oxygen tanks so they won't leak or get damaged. To learn all of this and more, continue reading to learn all about how to practice proper oxygen safety in and outside of your home.
Prevent Oxygen Leaks
One of the most important parts of supplemental oxygen safety is to prevent oxygen from leaking out of your tank or mask. If too much oxygen escapes into the air, it poses a serious fire hazard.
Even a small spark or heat from a stove burner can cause oxygen in the air to ignite and set fire to you or objects nearby. That's why it's important to know how to handle your equipment safely when you use supplemental oxygen.
Here are some tips for preventing oxygen leaks:
- Always exercise care when turning the valve on your oxygen tank. Turn the valve slowly so you don't release too much pressurized oxygen at once.
- Do not forget to close the valve on your oxygen tank when you are not using it. Take the time to double check if you aren't sure that it is closed all the way.
- Visually inspect any oxygen tanks you have, including the valves, regularly. Check the outside of the tank for noticeable wear, tear, or damage, and check for any noticeable leaks.
- Always store your tanks in a secure place where they won't tip, fall, or get damaged.
- Liquid oxygen tanks will leak if laid on their sides, so it's particularly important to store liquid tanks upright with a cart or chains.
- Always use clean, undamaged tubing during oxygen therapy. Never use damaged equipment or tubing with holes or tears.
No matter how careful you are to prevent leaks from your tank and tubing, a small amount of oxygen will inevitably leak out near your nose and mouth while you use supplemental oxygen.
That's why it's so important to stay away from heat, sparks, and anything else that could cause the oxygen to combust. We'll go into this in more detail in the following sections.
Keep Heat and Flame Away From Your Oxygen
If you remember nothing else about oxygen safety, you should make sure you remember this: never, ever use your oxygen around an open flame. Doing so could quickly and easily cause a fire, which is why it's so important to keep your oxygen away from flames at all costs.
Open flames aren't the only hazard, however; even everyday heat sources like stoves and space heaters can also be dangerous. Anything with a heating element can pose a fire risk when you are using supplemental oxygen.
Here are some tips for avoiding heat and flame hazards when you use oxygen:
- Be very cautious when using supplemental oxygen while you cook. Always move at least five feet away from the stove to use your supplemental oxygen, and never wear your nasal cannula near a gas stove or open flame.
- Your oxygen tank and other equipment should also be kept at least five feet away from the stove and other heat sources at all times.
- When you are using oxygen, beware of all sources of open flames: this includes lighters, matches, candles, fireplaces, cigarettes, gas burners, etc. Do not use any of these items or allow anyone near you to start a flame while oxygen is in use.
- Do not smoke or use an electronic cigarette or vaping device while using oxygen. E-cigarettes contain heating elements that could potentially ignite the oxygen that collects around your nasal cannula, causing severe facial burns.
- Place “oxygen in use” signs in visible places near all of the entrances to your home (these are usually provided by your oxygen supplier). This will ensure that visitors and emergency personnel know to be cautious of the high flammability risk.
- Make sure to inform people around you of the risks of heat and open flame when you use oxygen. If needed, place a "no smoking, oxygen in use" sign nearby so others remember to be cautious.
- Take the same precautions that you would when using supplemental oxygen when you are near where you store your oxygen and extra tanks. Make sure you and everyone in your home knows where you keep your oxygen tanks and equipment and understand how to exercise proper fire safety.
Keep Your Oxygen Equipment Away from Electronics, Static Electricity, and Flammable Substances
While they don't pose as much of a risk as heated appliances and open flames, faulty electronic devices can also pose a fire hazard when you use supplemental oxygen. Some electronics and mechanical toys can also create tiny sparks that can cause fires in the presences of excess oxygen, which is why you shouldn't use them at the same time as you're using supplemental oxygen.
Another risk is static electricity build-up, the kind that happens when you drag your socks across the carpet or rub a balloon on your clothes. The "shock," or spark, that results when the static electricity dissipates can pose a fire risk when you are using supplemental oxygen. While it's impossible to avoid static electricity altogether, especially during the dry, winter months, you can reduce the risk of static sparks by avoiding certain types of clothing and fabrics.
Here are some tips for reducing the risk of fire from electronics and static electricity:
- Don't use electronic appliances when using oxygen. This includes electric razors, mechanical toys, heating pads, electric blankets, electric toothbrushes, and electronic hair dryers, hair curlers, and hair straighteners.
- Don't use any electronic device that produces heat when using supplemental oxygen. This includes electronic cigarettes.
- Avoid static-producing fabrics like wool, nylon, and synthetic fabrics (e.g. polyester). Instead, choose clothing and bedding made of cotton, which is much less likely to produce static electricity.
- Don't use any flammable products on your skin and hair, including flammable lotions, hair products, and hair sprays that could ignite due to heat or a static spark in the presence of oxygen. Especially watch out for products that contain petroleum and choose water-based ones instead.
- Avoid using chapstick and oil-based lotions on your body, and especially your face, when using your supplemental oxygen, as they can cause severe burns if they ignite.
- Avoid other flammable substances when using oxygen, including gasoline, paint thinner, cleaning fluids, aerosols, and sprays that contain alcohol.
- Never use any aerosol sprays while using supplemental oxygen. This includes air fresheners, spray deodorants, and hairsprays.
- Don't use alcohol-based hand sanitizers while using supplemental oxygen. If you use hand sanitizer before using oxygen, make sure that it has dried off of your hands completely before starting the oxygen or touching any of your oxygen equipment.
- Using a humidifier during dry weather can reduce the amount of static build-up that occurs in your home. Keeping your house at an ideal humidity level (usually around 40 percent humidity) may reduce your fire risk when using supplemental oxygen and can also help your COPD symptoms.
- If you use an oxygen concentrator, always plug it into an empty, grounded outlet (an outlet with three holes instead of two). Never plug it into an extension cord, a faulty outlet, or an outlet that has other electronics plugged into it.
Even if you don't want to switch out your wardrobe for cotton-based clothes, consider at least switching to cotton bed sheets and blankets, especially if you use nighttime oxygen.
Static electricity from other types of fabric poses a much greater risk while you are asleep; this is partially because you are more likely to build up a static charge while shifting under your sheets, and partially because you might not be able to respond as quickly if a fire starts while you are asleep.
Use Your Oxygen in a Well-Ventilated Area
Using oxygen in a well-ventilated space is another important precaution that you can take to reduce your flammability risk and avoid fires. That means using your oxygen in an area with plenty of airflow and open space whenever possible.
Proper ventilation ensures that any extra oxygen in the air can quickly dissipate and leave the room before it builds up to the point of posing a significant fire risk. Beware of small, enclosed spaces; you should always try go outside or seek a more open area before beginning supplemental oxygen treatment.
Here are some tips for making sure you use your oxygen in well-ventilated places:
- Make sure the ventilation system in your home is in good working order.
- Crack the windows in your car if you are using supplemental oxygen while driving or transporting an oxygen tank.
- Never place anything on top your oxygen tank. Doing so could cause any oxygen that leaks out to become trapped and build up to extremely flammable levels.
- Keep your oxygen tanks clean and in an open space where air can freely flow around them. Never store your oxygen tanks in an enclosed space or anywhere that doesn't have ventilation.
Prepare Your Home for Fire Emergencies
Even if you are very careful when using your supplemental oxygen, accidents can still happen. That's why, if you use oxygen in your home, you should be extra prepared in case a fire starts.
Here are some tips for home fire preparedness and precautions you should take if you or someone in your home uses supplemental oxygen:
- Make sure your house has the recommended number of smoke detectors and they are all in good working order. Check the batteries often and replace them promptly when needed.
- Make sure there is always a smoke detector in or right outside the room whenever you use supplemental oxygen.
- Always keep a fire extinguisher in your home and within easy reach, especially while you are using oxygen.
- Make sure your fire extinguisher is in good working order and replace it promptly when it expires.
- Make sure you and everyone else in your household knows how to operate your fire extinguisher correctly.
- Have an evacuation plan and escape route planned in case of a fire emergency. Make sure everyone in your household knows what to do, where to go, and where to locate any safety equipment such as window escape ladders.
Keep Oxygen Equipment Away from Children
Now that you understand how dangerous supplemental oxygen can be if not properly handled, it should be clear why you should keep children away from your oxygen equipment. Many children are not old enough to understand the dangers of oxygen or to be trusted to treat the equipment gently.
If you have children in your home, you should keep your oxygen equipment secured and out of reach whenever possible. Large oxygen tanks can be particularly tempting for little children to play with and climb on, so it's important to instruct kids that they are off limits and keep a close watch to ensure that they stay away.
Large, heavy oxygen tanks can also be very dangerous to children and cause injuries if they fall. This is yet another reason to store your tanks properly and securely so they can't be tipped or knocked over.
Always Store and Transport Tanks Securely
It's very important to make sure that you keep your oxygen tanks stored safely in a place where they won't be bumped or disturbed. You should keep any extra tanks in a stand or cart to ensure that they do not fall or get knocked over.
This is especially important when you are traveling with oxygen tanks, as there is a higher risk of the tanks getting jostled and tipped. Always keep your equipment carefully secured and protected any time you transport them from place to place.
Here are some tips for storing and transporting your oxygen:
- Use an oxygen cart, stand, or chains to secure any extra oxygen tanks that you are not using. Never store them loose or unsupported.
- Make sure all tanks are stored flat on the ground. Do not put them up on shelves or in any elevated place.
- Transport oxygen tanks in your car by securing them in the main cabin of your car, not in the trunk. Open your car windows slightly to ensure that you have adequate airflow and ventilation.
- Keep your tanks in a moderately temperature-controlled space, like an air conditioned room. Do not leave your equipment in the sun, in a hot car, or allow them to be exposed to temperature extremes.
Exercise Care When Handling Your Equipment
Overall, it's important to always handle your equipment gently and with care. It's important to protect your tanks from damage to prevent leaks and dangerous explosions.
Here are some tips for handling and using your oxygen equipment with care:
- Be careful not to drop your oxygen tanks. Use a stand, cart, or another safe container to secure your tanks when you move them from place to place.
- Never handle your tanks roughly or carelessly.
- Never drag or roll your tanks across the floor, set them down too hard, or let them bang against walls or other objects.
- Always lift your oxygen tanks by holding the bottom or sides of the tank; do not lift or carry your tanks by holding the cap or valve.
- Never cover your oxygen equipment, including tanks, tubing, and electrical cords. Do not put them underneath fabric, furniture or bedding.
- Do not use an oxygen tank that has been dropped or damaged.
Knowing how to use oxygen safely is extremely important for anyone with COPD. Most patients end up using supplemental oxygen at some point over the course of their life, and knowing what precautions to take can prevent devastating fires and injuries.
Even though most people who use supplemental oxygen don't have any problems, all it takes is one poorly-timed mistake or a stroke of bad luck to cause a fire or a burn. The consequences when something does go wrong can be devastating, which is why being lazy or careless is simply never worth the risk.
It might be inconvenient or take extra effort, but properly using, handling, and storing your oxygen is worth the extra time and effort it takes. It's not worth cutting corners when a simple mistake could cause serious burns or start a dangerous fire.
But even though using supplemental oxygen does carry some serious risks, you can minimize them significantly by practicing proper oxygen safety and keeping your equipment clean and maintained. If you or someone you love uses supplemental oxygen, these oxygen safety tips can help you make the treatment as safe and risk-free as possible.