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What Is an Oxygen Concentrator?

Medically Reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD on July 29, 2021

An oxygen concentrator is a medical device that gives you extra oxygen. Your doctor may prescribe one for you if you have a health condition that causes your oxygen level to drop too low.

It can help some people who have trouble breathing due to conditions like:

You need to get your doctor’s OK before you buy or use an oxygen concentrator. Using one without their guidance or a prescription can be dangerous. If the doctor thinks a concentrator might be right for you, they’ll let you know how much oxygen to take and how long to use the device.

How Does It Work?

An oxygen concentrator isn’t the same thing as an oxygen tank, which delivers liquid or gas oxygen. Instead, the concentrator is a machine that pulls in the air around you and filters out the nitrogen.

A thin tube runs from the device to your face, giving you purified oxygen through two open prongs below your nostrils. Some people use a facemask to get a higher concentration and flow of oxygen.

There are two types of concentrators: a bigger model you can use at home, and a lighter, portable model you can use on the go.

How Do I Use an at-Home Unit?

Your doctor might prescribe this for you if you need constant oxygen while you’re in your house or sleeping. It runs on electricity, so you need to keep it plugged in all the time for it to work properly. (If you find it drives up your electric bill, you could tell your power company that you’re running medical equipment and ask if they can give you a discount.)

Follow the device’s instructions on how to use and maintain it. The doctor will tell you what level to set the oxygen flow rate to -- that’s number of liters per minute. Don’t change the rate your doctor prescribed unless they tell you to.

These adjustments could help the concentrator work better for you:

  • Add a humidifier. If the extra oxygen you get dries out your nose, you may be able to attach a humidifier bottle to the unit. You fill it with distilled water, and it makes the oxygen you breathe moister.
  • Lengthen the tubing. You can extend the tube that runs from the machine to your nose by up to 50 feet with a hose attachment. If you do this, be careful not to trip on the hose while you walk around.

How to Clean Your Concentrator

You’ll need to give your concentrator gear a regular cleaning.

  • Tubing or facemask. Wash once a week with warm water and mild dish soap. Clean it more often if you get sick. Let it air dry, and don’t let water get in the tube. If the tubing looks damaged, get a replacement from your oxygen supplier.
  • Humidifier bottle. If you use one, clean it every 3 days with warm water and mild dish soap. Rinse it with hot water. You can also soak it in a mix of vinegar and water for a few minutes to clear out any leftover bacteria. Dry the bottle with a paper tower, then air dry it.
  • Concentrator filter. Clean it once a month. Take it out and dunk it into a clean container that’s filled with water and mild dish soap. Scrub with a washcloth to get rid of any dirt or dust, then rinse it under water to remove any soap residue. Lay the filter on a dry, clean towel and let it air dry completely before you put it back in the concentrator.

How Do I Use a Portable Unit?

This smaller concentrator works similarly to the at-home version, only you can use it outside and in your car. It runs on a rechargeable battery. The device fits in a pack that you carry with a handle or with a sling that goes over your shoulder, among other options.

Portable concentrators give you oxygen by “pulse dose,” meaning the oxygen comes out in small bursts each time you inhale. Some models can also give you oxygen at a steady flow rate. Talk to your doctor to make sure that you’re getting the right amount of oxygen from either setting.

Follow all of your doctor’s directions and the instructions that came with your device. You’ll also want to:

  • Carry an extra battery. Even though your device’s display panel should tell you how much battery life is left, bring a spare with you in case you won’t be back home for a while.
  • Clean your gear regularly. Wash the tubing or facemask once a week with warm water and mild dish soap. Clean them more often if you get sick. Let them air dry, and don’t let water get in the tube. If the tubing looks damaged, get a replacement from your oxygen supplier. Follow the maker’s instructions on how to clean the filter.

What Safety Measures Should I Take?

To keep you and your loved ones safe when you use your oxygen concentrator:

  • Never use any type of oxygen device near an open flame or while smoking.
  • Keep the device in an open space. This makes it less likely to break or overheat.
  • Don’t block any vents on the concentrator. That makes it harder for it to do its job.
  • If your device beeps or sounds an alarm, check the instruction manual. It could mean something’s wrong, and you’ll want to make sure you’re getting the right amount of oxygen.

Also, never buy an oxygen concentrator that’s being sold without a prescription. Those aren’t approved by the FDA. Using a concentrator without a prescription or your doctor’s guidance could lead to dangerous health problems, like getting too little oxygen -- or getting lung damage from too much oxygen. It could also delay you from getting treatment for conditions like COVID-19.

When Should I Call the Doctor?

Pick up the phone if you notice changes in your breathing or oxygen levels. Also call the doctor if you have symptoms of COVID-19, like:

Again, don’t change your device’s oxygen levels unless your doctor tells you to.

WebMD Medical Reference

Sources

SOURCES:

FDA: “Pulse Oximeters and Oxygen Concentrators: What to Know About At-Home Oxygen Therapy.”

MedlinePlus: “Oxygen Therapy.”

American Lung Association: “Getting Started with a Home Oxygen Concentrator,” “Getting Started with a Portable Oxygen Concentrator.”

COPD Foundation: “Costs of Supplemental Oxygen.”

UC San Diego Health: “Understanding Oxygen Toxicity.”

CDC: “Symptoms of COVID-19.”

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