Supplemental Oxygen

The first and most important fact that you need to know about supplemental oxygen is that using it will make you feel so much better!  If you’re often short of breath for a long period of time, if you’re not sleeping well, or if you have no energy—oxygen will probably make a huge difference in your life.

A brief explanation will help you understand why oxygen will help you.  Oxygen (O2) is an element, a gas your body needs to live and to perform all of your bodily functions no matter how small.  In general, when you inhale, you take in oxygen, which then passes through your lungs and into your bloodstream through alveoli, small air sacs in the lungs.  Once your blood has picked up the oxygen, it’s pumped through the rest of your body.  As your body uses the oxygen for its various functions, it releases carbon dioxide (CO2) as a waste product.  The carbon dioxide, in turn, travels through your blood into the cells in your lungs, up through your lungs, and you breathe it out.  If this process is flawed and your body can’t pass oxygen from your lungs into your bloodstream, the oxygen levels in your blood will not be sufficient for your body to function well.  Then, you may need supplemental oxygen.  This is especially true for people who are unable to obtain sufficient oxygen due to respiratory illnesses like LAM.

Why You Should Use Supplemental Oxygen

Perhaps you get short of breath but recover quickly, so you don't feel you really need it.  However, tests can be more objective than your feelings and may show that you’re damaging your body by not using O2.  Lack of oxygen (hypoxia) can cause you to feel tired, weak, confused, and/or forgetful.  But a more serious problem is that chronic oxygen deficiency can force your heart to work harder than it should.  This constant strain on your heart can cause pulmonary hypertension (when the blood pressure in the pulmonary artery is abnormally high) and other heart problems.  These problems are exacerbated because, even though you usually know when your lungs aren’t getting enough oxygen, you can’t tell when your heart isn’t getting enough oxygen.

There are a few myths circulating about oxygen usage.  One of the most common is that you can become “dependent” on, or “addicted” to, oxygen.  This just isn’t true.  Another myth is that you can store enough oxygen when you’re wearing it while resting at home, for example, to “tide you over” during more active periods.  Again, not true. Nor does the reverse theory work—that you can use it as a “rescue therapy” to give your body more oxygen after a period when you know your body wasn’t getting enough.  If your body needs oxygen, it needs oxygen.  By not using oxygen when you need it, you’re only cheating yourself.  One more myth is that compressed gaseous oxygen tanks can “blow up” or explode.  Yes, the tanks are pressurized, but if a top is broken off, the tank will not explode; it will, however, shoot across the room like a torpedo until it’s either empty or hits something sturdy enough to stop it.

There is one thing that’s not a myth:  There should be NO SMOKING around oxygen.  The tank won’t explode, but oxygen fuels fires, and, if you have supplemental oxygen flowing around your face, everything around you will be oxygen-enriched.  Therefore, even a seemingly harmless spark could quickly cause a fire.

When you first begin using O2, your doctor may prescribe it for use only when you’re sleeping or exercising.  In general, your lungs—like other parts of your body—slow down during sleep.  Many women and men (especially those who are overweight) tend to snore, suffer from sleep apnea, or have other conditions that cause their oxygen levels to fall during sleep.  Therefore, you might not get the amount of oxygen you require even if you didn’t have LAM.  Your doctor may order a test, called an overnight oximetry, which can be done at home or in a sleep clinic. The test measures your oxygen levels during sleep and will determine if you need nighttime oxygen.  Sometimes, O2 at night is all you need to keep your oxygen saturation at a sufficient level.

Your O2 usage may vary according to your individual needs and your level of activity.  While sitting to read or watch TV, you may require less oxygen than when walking or vacuuming.  Some women desaturate (that is, the oxygen level in the blood drops) significantly while exercising, yet they maintain adequate saturation levels at rest or with light activity.  For them, O2 during workouts, heavy housework, or gardening may fulfill their oxygen needs, while some women may require O2 regardless of activity. Remember, your body doesn’t “store” oxygen for the times when you really need it, so when you need it, use it.

Oxygen needs often change as LAM progresses, so you’ll need regular checkups to monitor your oxygen levels.  In general, if your oxygen levels are below 90% at rest, you’ll probably need full-time oxygen.  If your saturation levels drop below 90% only during sleep or only with exertion, you’ll need oxygen only at those times.

Before you begin to use supplemental oxygen, you’ll need your doctor or your respiratory therapist to determine how much oxygen you require.  Oxygen flow is measured in liters per minute (LPM), so you’ll need to know your LPM requirement to maintain oxygen saturation level of 90% or higher.  As mentioned earlier, your liter flow will likely differ with different activities.

Tips For Using Supplemental Oxygen

  • Walk slowly and steadily rather than quickly or at various speeds. Pacing yourself can help preserve both your energy and your stamina.
  • Ask your doctor about trying a nebulizer if you normally use bronchodilators.  You might get an extra boost from this method of O2 delivery.
  • Do necessary tasks and harder chores at whatever time of day you feel is your best breathing time.  You may breathe best early in the day or in the mid to late afternoon when you have more energy.
  • Rest when you NEED to rest.
  • Purchase a pinching/grabbing device for picking up items off the floor and for reaching items on high shelves.  Tasks that require you to bend over or to raise your arms above your head will make you more short of breath.