Oxygen at home

Some people might get relief from using oxygen when they are short of breath but it does not help everyone. A handheld fan which directs cold air against the face might also be very helpful.

You might need to use oxygen just before or after any exercise. This could be before you go walking, or take a shower. Or you might need to use oxygen all of the time. There are small portable oxygen cylinders you can take out with you if you need them.

Different types of oxygen therapy

If you have cancer you can become breathless for a number of reasons. Once your doctor has found out why you are breathless, they might recommend oxygen therapy for you.

You can have oxygen therapy at home from:

  • a compressed oxygen cylinder
  • a liquid oxygen cylinder
  • an oxygen concentrator machine
  • small, portable oxygen cylinders and concentrators to use when going out

If you only need oxygen for a short period of time you usually have cylinders. But if you need oxygen for longer, then you are likely to need an oxygen concentrator.

Machines that supply oxygen (concentrators)

Oxygen concentrators are used when you need oxygen for longer periods of time.

How oxygen concentrators work

An oxygen concentrator works by filtering out oxygen from the air. You then breathe in the oxygen through small tubes that fit inside your nose (nasal cannulae).

The concentrator is roughly the size of a big suitcase and plugs in to a normal electricity socket. Tubing from the machine can go along the floor or skirting board, and supplies oxygen from 2 different points downstairs.

It is also possible to have an extra supply point upstairs if you need it. The machine is very quiet. You have an oxygen cylinder to use as back up, in case the machine breaks down.

How to get an oxygen concentrator

An oxygen supply company supplies the oxygen concentrator and all other equipment you need.

First, you need to sign a consent form allowing your doctor to send your contact details to the company. The company then contacts you to arrange a visit to install the machine.

They will show you, or your carer, how to use the concentrator and cylinder and answer any questions you have.

The concentrator costs about 2 pence an hour to run, and the NHS pays the costs. The supply company will arrange for you to be paid back for the electricity you use for your oxygen.

The company will service the machine regularly to try and prevent any problems. They will give you a 24 hour contact number to ring (free from a landline) if you have any problems with your oxygen supply.

How to get an oxygen supply

In England and Wales, 4 large companies are responsible for supplying you with cylinders or a concentrator. They are responsible for everything to do with your oxygen supply, including providing a contact number in case you have any problems.

You can find phone numbers for these oxygen supply companies on NHS Choices. Your GP or specialist will need to prescribe oxygen for you before you can arrange a supply.

In Scotland and Northern Ireland, your GP and local pharmacist arrange your oxygen supply.

Mouth care

Using oxygen can sometimes make your mouth and nostrils very dry. If left, a dry mouth can become very uncomfortable and lead to bad breath, infections and sore cracked lips. To try and avoid this:

  • drink as often as you can
  • keep your teeth clean
  • put lip balm on your lips

It is possible to get humidified oxygen which helps to prevent this.

Avoid products containing petroleum jelly (such as vaseline) or oil-based emollients on your lips or skin if you are having oxygen therapy. Using these products with oxygen therapy is a fire hazard. Use water based products, such as vitamin E or Surgilube instead.

Safety advice

Oxygen is a fire hazard so remember to be careful with it when you have it at home. For example:

  • don't allow anyone to smoke near you while you're using oxygen

  • keep oxygen at least six feet away from gas cookers and gas heaters

  • don't use flammable liquids, such as cleaning fluid, paint thinner or aerosols, while using oxygen

  • install fire alarms and smoke detectors in your home and make sure they're working

  • let your local fire brigade know that you have oxygen at home

  • keep oxygen cylinders upright to prevent them being damaged

Going on holiday

Last reviewed: 
22 Nov 2019
  • Symptom management in advanced cancer (4th edition)

    Twycross R, Wilcock A and Toller Sm (2009)

    Radcliffe Medical Press Ltd

  • BTS Guidelines for Home Oxygen Use in Adult
    British Thoracic Society and BTS Home Oxygen Guideline Group
    Thorax - An international journal of respiratory medicine, June 2015 Volume 70 Supplement 1

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