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Oxygen is central to life processes, with most of the biochemical and metabolic activities in our bodies needing this ingredient. For instance, you need oxygen to break down the food you consume into energy via a process known as cellular respiration. Your brain also requires an adequate oxygen supply to generate the energy it needs to function.
When you can't get enough oxygen naturally, doctors may need to administer supplemental therapy. This intervention is known as oxygen therapy and is used to manage illnesses or diseases that prevent you from absorbing enough oxygen. Asthma is one such condition.
When you experience an asthma attack, the airways that allow passage of air in and out of the lungs usually constrict, and as a result, you may find it hard to breathe. The constriction can usually be relieved through bronchodilators, which may come in the form of inhalers. These interventions allow the airways to relax and allow air passage in mild asthma attacks.
However, bronchodilators may not work when the asthma attack is severe. Therefore, doctors may have to pursue more prompt and effective interventions such as asthma oxygen therapy, as this will supply the much-needed oxygen to your body. The therapy is usually applied when symptoms indicate you are not getting enough oxygen.
In such a case, you could exhibit:
Shortness of breath
Coughing or wheezing
A change in the color of your skin
Loss of consciousness
Doctors usually administer supplemental oxygen through a face mask or tubes that go into your nostrils.
The amount of supplemental oxygen you would need in an asthma attack depends on the severity of the attack.
Healthcare professionals usually opt for this when the patient needs low volumes of additional oxygen. The treatment team will dilute a small amount of extra oxygen with the surrounding air and deliver it through any of these systems:
A simple face mask: This mask covers your mouth and nose and can be used to supply air with a 35–55% oxygen composition.
Nasal cannulas: In this method, the doctor fits two tubes into your nostrils, and air with a 24–40% oxygen composition is supplied to your breathing system.
Non-rebreather mask: This is a tight-fitting face mask with a reservoir to prevent the escape of oxygen into the air. When you inhale while wearing this mask, you inhale the excess oxygen from the bag but do not have to take in the exhaled air since the mask has a valve to prevent this from occurring. Air delivered through this method usually has a 65–95% oxygen concentration.
Unlike low-flow oxygen delivery systems, where the amount of oxygen inhaled depends on the air breathed in, high-flow delivery systems usually allow the doctor to set the amount of oxygen they want you to inhale.
Venturi masks and high-flow nasal cannulas are some delivery systems doctors may employ. The Venturi mask is usually fitted over your mouth, while the high-flow nasal cannulas usually involve the insertion of tubes into your nostrils to provide oxygen levels of up to 100%.
Research¹ indicates that high-flow nasal cannulas are more effective than low-flow methods in reducing shortness of breath in individuals with severe asthma. A 2018 study² further suggests that high-flow nasal cannulas relieve respiratory distress in asthmatic children faster than low-flow delivery methods.
However, high-flow oxygen should be used judiciously in those with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and asthma.
You should consult your doctor about asthma oxygen therapy as they are qualified to determine whether you should use it, how often you should use it, and the amount of oxygen needed per minute.
Sometimes the doctor may determine that you need oxygen during activities such as exercising. If you need oxygen at home, the doctor will prescribe a portable oxygen tank with which you can leave home if necessary.
Some devices you might use include:
Oxygen concentrators: These are devices capable of selectively extracting oxygen from the air by removing nitrogen, after which you can breathe it. Oxygen concentrators provide low levels of oxygen.
Liquid oxygen systems: These usually package oxygen in liquid form. Liquid oxygen is generally filled in small portable canisters, although you must order refills once they run out.
Oxygen canisters (gas cylinders): These contain oxygen in gaseous form and come in small, portable sizes. Just like liquid oxygen systems, oxygen canisters also contain 100% oxygen.
Administering oxygen therapy in severe asthma attacks that cannot be relieved by conventional methods such as bronchodilators supplies the body with much-needed oxygen. As a result, oxygen therapy can result in benefits such as:
A reduction in shortness of breath
Reduced breathing rate and effort
Alleviation of anxiety
Oxygen therapy is safe for the most part, but it could result in a dry or bloody nose or headache.
It is also advisable not to smoke or be around flammable materials when using oxygen therapy, as the gas poses a fire risk.
Experts further recommend that you only receive enough oxygen to supplement what's already in the body, and blood oxygen levels above 92% are deemed typically sufficient in the management of acute asthma exacerbations.
You should consult your doctor about oxygen therapy for asthma if other medications prove ineffective in alleviating the symptoms of an asthma attack. The doctor will be able to examine you and determine if oxygen therapy is necessary. You should also visit your doctor if the side effects worsen.
However, oxygen therapy is considered within the realm of acute management of asthma attacks and is not typically part of the compendium of therapies for the management of chronic asthma.
During an asthma attack, the airways usually narrow, limiting the oxygen supply to the lungs. As a result, you may experience shortness of breath, coughing, and wheezing. If mild, these symptoms can be relieved through medication that helps relax the airways, allowing air into the body.
In some cases, however, asthma attacks can be severe, and the airways may fail to relax, necessitating the administration of additional therapy to the lungs — an option known as asthma oxygen therapy. Apart from side effects such as a dry or bloody nose and a bit of a headache, oxygen therapy is generally safe and effective in treating low oxygen levels and alleviating asthma symptoms.