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As your COPD progresses, you are likely to need supplemental oxygen. Portable oxygen therapy allows you the freedom you need to be able to lead an active life beyond the walls of your home. What do you need to know about it?

People who suffer from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease will find that breathing becomes progressively more difficult, and in the more advanced stages of COPD, your medications alone may not be enough to maintain a good quality of life. Portable oxygen therapy can come to your rescue, helping you live as well and as independently as possible, whether you’re hoping to travel or are spending time at home. These lightweight systems, which can run on batteries and plug into electric outlets, purify the air around you, so you don’t need to carry heavy tanks around or constantly worry about refills.

What should every COPD patient know about portable oxygen therapy?

Oxygen therapy for COPD: The different systems

Three different kinds of systems can deliver the oxygen you need:

  • Compressed gas systems feature small tanks that you’ll have to have delivered.
  • Liquid oxygen systems feature a tank that patients can refill using a reservoir.
  • Portable oxygen concentrators — POCs for short — don’t rely on tanks and don’t need to be refilled. They may look a bit like a shoulder bag that you can carry around relatively easily, or may come in the form of a cart with wheels.

While you can indeed go outside with any of these systems, many people prefer the ease of use of a portable oxygen concentrator, especially if they lead an active lifestyle and engage in air travel. POCs can be taken on board airplanes.

How do portable oxygen concentrators work?

Portable oxygen concentrators are powered by rechargeable batteries — you can recharge them using electric outlets but also your car’s power port. They weigh between three and 20 pounds and represent an enormous improvement over huge oxygen tanks that might allow you to breathe, but essentially shackle you to your home. The quality, weight, price, and size of portable oxygen concentrators vary. Some products currently on the market include the AirSep FreeStyle, Inogen One, SeQual Eclipse, and Respironics EverGo.

Portable oxygen therapy: Continuous or on-demand (pulse) flow?

The oxygen in your POC may be delivered in two different ways:

  • Continuously through your nasal cannula, which is known as continuous flow.
  • Upon inhaling. This is called on-demand flow, or pulse flow.

Each system has advantages and disadvantages. On-demand flow may not give you the oxygen you need while you are exercising or sleeping, and this kind of system is generally less beneficial for patients with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, because some exertion is required if the device is to deliver oxygen.

Continuous-flow portable oxygen concentrators, on the other hand, have the disadvantage of usually being much larger in size. Their larger compressors necessitate more powerful and thus larger batteries too, so they are more difficult to carry with you.

What should you know if you are interested in a portable oxygen concentrator?

Nobody should just go online and buy a portable oxygen concentrator. Ask your pulmonologist whether you are a good candidate for a POC, and if so, which system would serve your needs best, something that can be tested in advance.

Keep in mind that:

  • Your oxygen saturation should be at or above 88 to 90 percent while you are sleeping or walking. If it is less while using a particular POC, that device is not right for you.
  • You may need more oxygen while being physically active than your POC can offer you, so after you receive your system, discuss what you can and cannot do with it with your doctor in detail.
  • Pulse-flow systems will have numbers on them, but these do not correspond to the liters of oxygen you receive and are just settings.
  • A pulse oximeter can be used to see how much oxygen you are getting. Though this is what your doctor will use, you can also buy one for home use to test your saturation more often.
  • Should your device not serve you well, you will usually be able to return it.

Traveling with oxygen therapy: What do you need to know?

Before you travel further afield with your portable oxygen device:

  • Get the green light from your doctor. This is important for your health, but also know that if you’re planning to travel by plane, a lot of carriers demand a written statement from your physician before they will allow your portable oxygen compressor on board.
  • If you have another system for home use, make sure that your portable device meets your needs while sleeping, as not all do.
  • Check that your airline will allow your device on board in advance if you are flying. In the US, this means it has to have been approved by the Federal Aviation Administration. Other transportation companies (cruise, bus, train) may also have policies regarding supplemental oxygen devices.
  • Charge your device fully before a trip.
  • Make sure your device is in the best working order before you leave.
  • Also see if your POC’s manufacturer has a presence at your destination, so they could replace the device should it break while you are there.

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