Oxygen therapy is a form of treatment that provides the body with additional oxygen. Doctors use oxygen therapy to treat various conditions, including severe asthma attacks.

According to the American College of Asthma, Allergies, and Immunology (ACAAI), around 8.3% of people in the United States have asthma. The ACAAI also notes that every year, asthma results in 1.3 million emergency room visits.

Oxygen therapy is one treatment people can use to treat severe asthma attacks. Read on to learn more about oxygen therapy as a treatment for asthma, the risks and benefits of oxygen therapy, and the outlook for people with asthma.

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Oxygen is a gas that makes up around 21% of the air a person breathes. The body uses oxygen to provide energy for various processes.

If a person has low levels of blood oxygen, they may feel short of breath or confused. Low blood oxygen can also cause damage to the body.

Oxygen therapy provides extra oxygen to people who have low blood oxygen levels. Doctors may use oxygen therapy to treat people who need additional oxygen due to certain conditions, such as:

When a person has an asthma attack, the muscles surrounding their bronchial tubes constrict. The bronchial tubes are passages that allow air to go in and out of a person’s lungs.

If a person’s bronchial tubes narrow, they will find it extremely hard to breathe and be unable to take in enough oxygen. Oxygen therapy works by supplying the lungs with additional oxygen when levels are low.

Oxygen therapy delivers oxygen from a container to a person via a face mask or through tubes that go into a person’s nostrils.

There are two different levels of oxygen that doctors can use when providing oxygen therapy. A person may require different levels of oxygen depending on the severity of their condition.

Low-flow oxygen delivery systems

Treatment teams use low-flow oxygen delivery systems when a person needs a smaller amount of additional oxygen. These systems dilute a small amount of extra oxygen with air from the room.

In low-flow oxygen delivery systems, the amount of extra oxygen a person gets depends on how much air they take in with each breath. This means it can be hard to determine the exact amount of oxygen a person is getting.

Types of low-flow oxygen delivery systems include:

  • Nasal cannulas: Nasal cannulas are two tubes that fit inside a person’s nostrils. A low-flow nasal cannula provides air that is around 24–40% oxygen.
  • Simple face mask: A simple face mask is a mask that fits over a person’s nose and mouth. These can supply air that is about 35–55% oxygen.
  • Non-rebreather mask: A non-rebreather mask is similar to a simple mask, but it also has a reservoir bag, which prevents excess oxygen from going into the air. When a person breathes in while wearing a non-rebreather mask, they also inhale the excess oxygen from the reservoir bag. Non-rebreather masks can provide air containing between 80–95% oxygen, and have a valve that prevents a person from re-inhaling exhaled air.

High-flow oxygen delivery systems

High-flow oxygen delivery systems provide oxygen at a higher rate than a person is breathing in. This means that a doctor can set the exact level of oxygen they want the person to take in.

High-flow oxygen delivery systems include Venturi masks, which fit over a person’s nose and mouth, and high-flow nasal cannulas, which can provide oxygen levels of up to 100%. High-flow nasal cannulas can also heat the air, making it easier to inhale.

Research suggests that high-flow nasal cannulas can be beneficial when treating people with asthma. A study from 2021 looked into the effects of high-flow nasal cannulas on acute severe asthma in an emergency room setting. Researchers found that high-flow nasal cannulas were able to reduce shortness of breath in people with acute severe asthma at a better rate than low-flow methods could.

Additionally, research from 2018 found that high-flow nasal cannulas were better at reducing respiratory distress in children experiencing moderate-to-severe asthma attacks than low-flow methods were.

For people who are prone to severe asthma attacks, oxygen therapy can help to prevent serious complications. Additionally, oxygen therapy can provide the following benefits for people with low oxygen levels:

  • decreased shortness of breath
  • increased energy levels
  • improved sleep

Oxygen therapy is generally a safe treatment. However, it can have certain side effects, including:

Additionally, high levels of oxygen can be damaging to a person with acute severe asthma. Research from the British Thoracic Society (BTS) notes that people with acute severe asthma who received 100% oxygen experienced high levels of carbon dioxide in their blood. The BTS recommends that people with acute severe asthma receive only the amount of oxygen necessary to normalize their blood oxygen levels.

A person who is experiencing a severe asthma attack should only receive oxygen therapy from a doctor. However, people can treat certain conditions that cause low oxygen levels with oxygen therapy at home.

Several devices can supply a person with oxygen in their home:

Oxygen concentrators

An oxygen concentrator is a device that extracts oxygen from the air and condenses it. Once the oxygen condenses, a person can breathe it in, providing them with additional oxygen.

Oxygen concentrators can be stationary or portable. Stationary oxygen concentrators remain in place but deliver higher oxygen outputs. Portable oxygen concentrators are easy to move around but provide a lower level of oxygen.

Liquid oxygen systems

Liquid oxygen systems contain oxygen in liquid form. Liquid oxygen canisters are smaller than gas canisters and can provide up to 100% pure oxygen.

People can refill liquid oxygen systems from larger, stationary devices. This means that liquid oxygen systems are portable and easy to carry around. However, a person will have to order refills once they run out of liquid oxygen.

Oxygen canisters

Oxygen canisters are vessels that contain oxygen as a gas. Oxygen canisters contain 100% oxygen and come in a variety of sizes. Although smaller canisters are portable, they can be inconvenient to carry around.

Although there is no cure for asthma, there are many ways to treat it.

Oxygen therapy is a beneficial treatment for a person experiencing a severe asthma attack. Research indicates that high-flow nasal cannulas are effective in treating a person with acute severe asthma.

If a person has severe asthma, they should speak to a doctor about treatment plans and how to avoid asthma attacks.

Severe asthma attacks can be life threatening. When a person has an asthma attack, their airways narrow, limiting their oxygen supply. Oxygen therapy for severe asthma attacks supplies a person with additional oxygen.

There are various oxygen therapy devices a doctor can use to treat an asthma attack. Oxygen therapy can also treat other conditions that cause low oxygen levels.

Oxygen therapy is generally safe. However, it can cause certain side effects. Additionally, having too much oxygen can be dangerous for a person with acute severe asthma. Only doctors should provide oxygen therapy for severe asthma attacks. However, people can treat other conditions that cause low oxygen levels at home.

There is no cure for asthma. However, with the right treatment plan, a person can manage their asthma effectively.