Guide to Portable Oxygen Concentrators

Sometimes as we age, we need a little extra help staying comfortable on a day to day basis. For some seniors, a prescription of oxygen therapy is the best way to ease symptoms of respiratory distress and make sure their blood oxygen levels stay in an acceptable range.

Gone are the days when home oxygen therapy meant dealing with a heavy oxygen cylinder. As well as being cumbersome to use and change, oxygen cylinders came with a risk of fire. Nowadays, oxygen can be delivered at home in a much safer and more convenient way, thanks to portable oxygen concentrators.

Let’s take a closer look at portable oxygen concentrators and everything you need to know before purchasing one for yourself or a loved one.

Who Needs Portable Oxygen?

Portable oxygen is for anyone who doesn’t have enough oxygen in their blood. When we breathe in, our lungs take in air, and oxygen enters our bloodstream. There are several medical conditions that can cause a drop in blood oxygen concentration – portable oxygen therapy increases blood oxygen levels.

Portable oxygen therapy can help with many conditions that cause blood oxygen levels to drop, such as sleep apnea, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), asthma, some heart conditions, and even infections.

How Will You Understand Your Oxygen Needs?

The main thing to know before purchasing a portable oxygen concentrator is you or your loved one’s oxygen needs. Your physician will tell you how many liters per minute (LPM) of oxygen your machine should produce. Armed with this number, you can check that a concentrator fits your needs before purchase. Your physician will also advise you on whether you need a pulse or continuous flow unit (we’ll get into more detail about the two types later in this article.)

Why Choose A Portable Oxygen Concentrator?

A portable oxygen concentrator is, as the name suggests, small enough to move around. That means if you or your loved one needs oxygen on the regular, you can still go out and about, and even travel or fly. It’s much easier and more convenient than using a cylinder or an in-home concentrator that isn’t portable.

With a portable oxygen concentrator, low blood oxygen doesn’t have to stop you going out and about if you want to. And if you or your loved one prefers or needs to stay around the house, it’s easier to move from room to room or chair to bed, or simply to get up to use the bathroom.

How Do Portable Oxygen Concentrators Work?

The air we breathe every day contains around 78% nitrogen, 21% oxygen, and 1% other gasses. Portable oxygen concentrators work by drawing in air via an inlet filter and into a compressor. The compressor compresses the air and passes it to the sieve bed, which becomes saturated with nitrogen. In this way, the concentrator removes the nitrogen from the air, leaving the oxygen at about 95% purity and ready to be passed to the user. Oxygen is delivered via a mask, or nasal cannula.

What Kinds Of Portable Oxygen Concentrators Are There?

There are two types of concentrators, and they’re both suited to different kinds of use:

Pulse flow units release oxygen in pulses. The unit senses when the user is about to breathe in and releases a pulse of oxygen to assist the breath. Pulse flow units are suited to those who are more active, or who need a little extra oxygen support during periods of activity. They’re generally recommended for people whose oxygen needs are around 2 LPM (liters per minute.)

Continuous flow units deliver a steady stream of oxygen. The units tend to be bigger and heavier than pulse flow ones, and they go through batteries faster because the oxygen is always on. Continuous flow units are better suited to those with oxygen needs of 5 LPM or above. They’re also the better option for those who need oxygen overnight when mouth breathing or shallow breathing might prevent a pulse flow unit working. Continuous flow units are the only ones that work with BiPAP machines, and thus are the only option for people with sleep apnea or those who use a BiPAP for other forms of COPD.

You can also buy units that offer both pulse and continuous flow options, so you can switch between them as necessary.

How Do You Operate A Portable Oxygen Concentrator?

Each unit differs a little, but in general, the operation is similar:

  • Make sure the concentrator is in a well-ventilated area
  • Connect the humidifier if using
  • Make sure the filter is in place
  • Connect the mask or cannula and make sure the tube is unobstructed and not twisted
  • Turn on the machine
  • Set the oxygen flow as desired

What Should You Look For When Choosing A Portable Oxygen Concentrator?

The portable oxygen concentrator you choose will very much depend on your needs, including whether you need a pulse or continuous flow, and whether you want to travel with it. Here are some things we recommend thinking about before purchase:

  • Do I need pulse or continuous flow?
  • What is the oxygen output? Be sure it gives the level of flow you need.
  • How heavy and bulky is this unit? Will I or my loved one be able to move it when needed?
  • What is the battery life like? Continuous flow units tend to have shorter battery life. If you need to travel with it and won’t have access to wall outlets or a car charger, keep this in mind. At the very least, look for upwards of two hours of battery life. If you plan to fly with it, it’s recommended that the battery life is twice as long as the flight.
  • What kind of filter does it have? Most models come with a standard particle filter, but some come with antibacterial filters, which are especially useful for users with a weakened immune system.
  • Is it FAA approved? If you or a loved one plan to go airborne with your concentrator in hand, you’ll need to be sure it’s FAA approved or you won’t be allowed to fly with it.
  • What accessories are included? Some models come with a carry case or even a trolley. Some include a spare battery and the necessary cannula, while others don’t. Keep in mind the added cost of buying extras separately.
  • How noisy is it? Most portable concentrators aren’t too bad, but some are still noisier than others. Most models list the decibel level – or you can ask the manufacturer.

How Much Do Portable Oxygen Concentrators Cost?

Portable oxygen concentrators range in price from around $1600 all the way up to $3500. In general, expect to pay around $2400 for a unit.

You can also purchase second-hand units, which tend to retail at around $800 and upwards, if you are looking to save some money. Do be careful if you opt for a second-hand unit though. Be sure you choose a reputable dealer and check that the machines are well maintained and thoroughly checked over before being sold.

Some suppliers offer the option to rent your machine. This is a good choice if you only need it for a short time, such as during an acute illness or recovery from surgery. Prices vary but expect to pay around $250 weekly.

Do Portable Oxygen Concentrators Need Maintenance?

Yes – like any home appliance, you’ll need to do a little maintenance on your portable oxygen concentrator. Filters should be cleaned and replaced regularly (your supplier will be able to advise you on how to do this for your specific machine.) Cannula and tubes need to be cleaned at least once a week and should be replaced monthly. We recommend always keeping spare cannula and spare fully charged batteries on hand.

Portable oxygen concentrators are a relatively easy way to get extra oxygen to help manage a wide range of conditions. Make sure you understand the flow and type of unit you need and don’t be afraid to ask questions before purchase. Your physician can help you understand what you need, while manufacturers can help you choose a machine that matches those needs.

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