What is Oxygen Therapy for Asthma?


    The American College of Asthma, Allergies, and Immunology (ACAAI) reports that approximately 8.3% of the U.S. population suffers from asthma, leading to 1.3 million emergency room visits annually. Oxygen therapy stands as a viable option for addressing severe asthma episodes. This treatment administers oxygen to patients with acute respiratory distress. While effective, it carries risks such as oxygen toxicity and fire hazards, requiring vigilant monitoring and adherence to safety protocols.

    Yet, oxygen therapy greatly benefits asthma patients during exacerbations. Furthermore, technological and medical advancements offer hope for improved symptom management and quality of life for those with asthma.

    What is oxygen therapy?

    Oxygen, constituting roughly 21% of the air we breathe, plays a crucial role in fueling various bodily processes. Inadequate blood oxygen levels can lead to symptoms like breathlessness and confusion, potentially causing harm to the body.

    Oxygen therapy for asthma involves boosting oxygen levels in people with low blood oxygen levels. It’s often given to those with conditions like chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, pulmonary fibrosis, pneumonia, severe asthma attacks, cystic fibrosis, or sleep apnea, where extra oxygen is needed for treatment.

    How does oxygen therapy work?

    During an asthma episode, the muscles around the air passages in the lungs tighten. These passages, called bronchial tubes, act like airways for the lungs. When they narrow during an asthma attack, breathing becomes difficult, and oxygen levels drop. Oxygen therapy helps ease asthma symptoms by supplying extra oxygen to the lungs during times of low oxygen levels.

    In oxygen therapy, oxygen is delivered from a container to the person’s body either through a face mask or small tubes in the nostrils.

    Two Types of Oxygen Levels Used During the Therapy

    Doctors have two options for oxygen levels when giving oxygen therapy. The required oxygen level may fluctuate depending on the severity of the individual’s condition.


    When someone needs a bit more oxygen, medical teams use low-flow oxygen delivery systems. These systems mix a small extra amount of oxygen with the air around them. The amount of extra oxygen a person gets depends on how much air they breathe. This makes it hard to accurately figure out the oxygen dose.

    Various kinds of low-flow oxygen delivery systems are available, such as:

    • Nasal cannulas: These consist of a pair of small tubes inserted into the nostrils. They provide air with about 24–40% oxygen.
    • Simple face mask: This covers the nose and mouth. It supplies air containing approximately 35–55% oxygen.
    • Non-rebreather mask: Much like a basic mask, it features a pouch for storing additional oxygen. It provides air with 80–95% oxygen and has a valve to stop the person from breathing out air.


    High-flow oxygen systems give oxygen faster than normal breathing. Doctors can control oxygen levels precisely with these systems. They include Venturi masks and high-flow nasal cannulas. High-flow nasal cannulas can warm the air, making breathing easier.

    New studies show that high-flow nasal cannulas can help people with asthma. In a 2021 study, they were found to ease shortness of breath better than low-flow methods for severe asthma in emergency rooms.

    Benefits of Oxygen Therapy for Severe Asthma Episodes

    For individuals at risk of severe asthma attacks, using oxygen therapy can prevent severe problems. Moreover, oxygen therapy can offer these advantages for those with low oxygen levels:

    • Less feeling out of breath
    • More energy
    • Better sleep

    What are the potential risks?

    Typically, oxygen therapy is considered safe; however, it might induce certain side effects, such as:

    • Nasal dryness or bleeding
    • Feeling tired
    • Morning headaches

    Also, providing excessive oxygen to people with severe asthma can cause harm. Research from the British Thoracic Society (BTS) shows that giving 100% oxygen to individuals with severe asthma increases their blood carbon dioxide levels. The BTS recommends that those with severe asthma only receive enough oxygen to bring their blood oxygen levels back to normal.

    How do I perform oxygen therapy at home?

    During a serious asthma attack, only a doctor should give oxygen therapy. But if oxygen levels are low due to other conditions, people can use oxygen at home. There are different devices for this:

    Oxygen concentrators

    An oxygen concentrator is a machine that takes oxygen from the air and makes it more concentrated. This concentrated oxygen can then be breathed in to give the person extra oxygen.

    These concentrators come in two types: stationary and portable. Stationary ones stay put but provide more oxygen, while portable ones are easy to carry around but give a bit less oxygen.

    Oxygen canisters

    Oxygen canisters are containers holding oxygen gas. They’re filled with pure oxygen and come in different sizes. While smaller ones are easy to carry, they can still be a hassle to bring around.

    Liquid oxygen systems

    Liquid oxygen systems store oxygen in liquid form. They’re smaller than gas tanks and can provide pure oxygen. These systems can be refilled with bigger, stationary devices, making them easy to carry. But when the liquid oxygen is finished, the person needs to get refills.

    Managing Asthma with Oxygen Therapy

    People with asthma or breathing problems should learn about oxygen therapy. Whether it’s at a doctor’s office or at home, using it right can really help with symptoms and make life better. It’s important to talk to doctors for the right advice on using oxygen equipment. By knowing what to do and getting help, people can manage their condition well and aim for better health.