Skip to main content

What are the Possible Side Effects Of Oxygen Therapy?

Published on August 29, 2022

4 minutes

Oxygen is fundamental to your health. Oxygen therapy is the basic method of treatment for people with severe COPD. 

If you have COPD, even if you do not feel breathless some of your muscles and organs may not be getting enough oxygen and can become damaged as a result. If your condition worsens it can become more and more difficult to enjoy simple daily activities. 

Home oxygen therapy is a drug and can be prescribed by your healthcare provider to help you with activities of daily life while increasing your overall quality of life.

Home oxygen therapy increases the oxygen levels in your blood, which can help you:

  • Live longer
  • Improve your breathing and feel less tired
  • Increase your ability to move about and maintain a social life
  • Improve your sleep and quality of life
  • Reduce hospitalizations

Oxygen Therapy Side Effects

Oxygen therapy has very few side effects, generally speaking, supplemental oxygen is safe and effective when used correctly. Keep in mind that most of the side effects of oxygen use are rare when it is used as prescribed. 

Here are the symptoms of getting too much oxygen:

Skin Irritation and Nasal Dryness:

One of the most common side effects of oxygen therapy is skin irritation and nasal dryness. Skin irritation can be caused by the cannula rubbing against the skin. Oxygen therapy has a drying effect on the nasal passages, increasing the likelihood of nasal dryness and nose bleeds. 

These minor side effects are easily remedied with topical treatments, using a moisturizing product to lubricate and soothe the skin and nasal passages.

Oxygen Toxicity:

Oxygen toxicity, caused by excessive or inappropriate supplemental oxygen, can cause severe damage to the lungs and other organ systems. High concentrations of oxygen, over a long period of time, can increase free radical formation, leading to damaged lungs. It can cause a spectrum of lung injuries ranging from mild tracheobronchitis to diffuse alveolar damage.

Typical supplemental oxygen patients using low-flow settings on their oxygen concentrators are not at risk of oxygen toxicity. However, those at particular risk for oxygen toxicity include hyperbaric oxygen therapy patients, patients exposed to prolonged high levels of oxygen, premature infants, and underwater divers.

Indications of oxygen toxicity include coughing due to irritation of the airways, along with increased shortness of breath. For this reason, oxygen should be administered so that appropriate target saturation levels are maintained and the lowest effective dose is given in order to avoid these supplemental oxygen side effects.

Hypoxic Drive / Suppression of Breathing:

The hypoxic drive theory is still being debated within the medical community due to a lack of evidence to support it. The hypoxic drive theory states that some patients with COPD develop chronically elevated carbon dioxide (CO2) levels in their bloodstream, leading to a buildup of CO2 in the body, which can result in health complications.

As COPD advances, the body’s perception of a “normal” level of CO2 gradually increases as it is constantly exposed to high levels of CO2. In some people with severe COPD, the level of CO2 becomes so high that the body can no longer use it as the stimulus to breathe. It is at that time that oxygen levels in the blood take over as the warning system that it’s time to breathe. This is called hypoxic drive.

If patients with a suspected hypoxic drive are given a high concentration of oxygen, their primary urge to breathe is removed and hypoventilation or apnea (cessation of breathing) may occur. It is important to note that not all COPD patients have chronic retention of CO2, and not all patients with CO2 retention have a hypoxic drive. 

Remember, these symptoms are rare. Don’t let the potential for uncommon side effects keep you from getting the treatment you need.

How do you reduce the risk? Let your Physician and Registered Respiratory Therapists (RRT) decide an appropriate prescription and stick to it. 

Remember: Never adjust your oxygen dose without first checking with your physician. If you are concerned about oxygen therapy side effects, talk to your Physician or RRT.

For more information about oxygen concentrators and other oxygen therapy products, click here.