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Pulmonary Fibrosis Foundation

Pulmonary Fibrosis Foundation

Understanding Supplemental Oxygen—Determining Need and What a Prescription Entails

Understanding Supplemental Oxygen—Determining Need and What a Prescription Entails

Learn how doctors determine a patient’s need for supplemental oxygen, and what receiving a prescription entails.


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The prospect of needing supplemental oxygen can be scary, and not all the signs are obvious. 

When we think of oxygen supporting life, our thoughts typically turn to the lungs. Yet, every cell and system of the human body requires oxygen for normal function. When the scarring in fibrotic lungs prevents them from taking in sufficient oxygen, the whole body is affected.

Signs you may need supplemental oxygen

Some people with insufficient oxygen intake may not be symptomatic. However, in a step-by-step guide to supplemental oxygen, the Pulmonary Fibrosis Foundation explains there are often physical signs, like shortness of breath and resulting fatigue, that suggest a visit to the doctor may be in order.* 

Other signs of inadequate oxygen can include:

  • Rapid heart rate, especially during exertion (though pulmonary fibrosis can cause shortness of breath during exertion even when oxygen levels are normal)
  • Blue lips and/or fingertips
  • Ankle swelling
  • Irritability

Oxygen levels are usually measured via pulse oximeter (a device placed on a patient’s finger or forehead), or by a blood test. If the physician deems it necessary, further tests may be ordered to measure your oxygen level at different times of day and night, while walking using a 6-minute walk test, and at rest.

Prescribing oxygen

Only your physician can prescribe supplemental oxygen, and amend the order if need be. Should the doctor deem supplemental oxygen necessary, they will work with you and the company supplying the oxygen to make certain that you receive the appropriate equipment and supplies for all of your activities at home, work, and while traveling, including sleep.

A customized prescription for supplemental oxygen will state:

  • Type of oxygen equipment to be used
  • When the oxygen should be used (during sleep, movement, at altitude, etc.)
  • Amount of oxygen required for each activity (depending on whether pulse flow or continuous flow is used)
  • Certificate of Medical Necessity (required by most insurance companies, including Medicare)

The company supplying your supplemental oxygen, called a durable medical equipment (DME) company, will provide:

  • A basic oxygen system, including equipment and disposable supplies
  • Equipment operation and safety instructions
  • 24-hour emergency service in the event of equipment failure or power outage

Breathe easier

While the use of supplemental oxygen has not been proven to extend life for people with pulmonary fibrosis, previous research has shown that supplemental oxygen prolongs the life of patients with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). Supplemental oxygen use can enable a more active lifestyle, reduce stress on the heart and lungs, and set the mind at ease.

*Pulmonary Fibrosis Foundation. (n.d.). Oxygen Basics: A step-by-step guide to using supplemental oxygen. Oxygen Basics Booklet. https://www.pulmonaryfibrosis.org/docs/default-source/programs/educational-materials/oxygen-basics/oxygen-basics-booklet.pdf

Spanish version:

https://www.pulmonaryfibrosis.org/docs/default-source/programs/educational-materials/oxygen-basics/oxygen-basics-booklet-esus.pdf

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