Oxygen concentrators are medical devices which are sold and used with a prescription. These machines work by taking in air from the room and filtering out nitrogen, which provides the higher levels of oxygen required for successful oxygen therapy. Oxygen is typically administered to patients via a mask or nasal cannula (a piece of apparatus made of lightweight tubing that is placed in the nostrils).

If an individual has a health condition that causes lowered levels of oxygen in their blood, they may need an oxygen concentrator. Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), cystic fibrosis, heart failure, sleep apnea, asthma, pneumonia, and a variety of other health conditions are commonly treated with oxygen concentrators.

There are a number of different types of oxygen concentrators available to patients undertaking oxygen therapy. When choosing an oxygen concentrator, it’s important to consider the advice you have received from your doctor with regards to your treatment. Your prescription should include information on how many litres of oxygen you require per minute, which will be a key factor in selecting the right oxygen concentrator. Different models offer different delivery rates and the concentrator you choose must be capable of carrying oxygen to you at the rate prescribed by your doctor. Your lifestyle and personal preferences will also determine which type of oxygen concentrator will be best for you.

Stationary oxygen concentrators

A stationary oxygen concentrator — also known as a home oxygen concentrator — serves the purpose of being your at-home, continuous flow oxygen therapy device. Stationary oxygen concentrators are placed inside the home and used to deliver oxygen to you through long tubing, which is typically over 50 feet in length. These machines can be used to complete oxygen therapy as you go about your day at home or while you sleep.

Stationary oxygen concentrators are generally bigger and heavier than portable oxygen concentrators, but can provide higher oxygen flow rates. For this reason, patients who need more oxygen than portable concentrators can deliver are often recommended stationary oxygen concentrators. 

Most of these devices must be plugged into a wall outlet to work, and many come with wheels to allow them to be moved to different rooms of your house.

Portable oxygen concentrators

Portable oxygen concentrators give more treatment flexibility to patients who don’t need high doses of oxygen. They’re designed to be easy to move around with and are typically compact and light — some weigh just five pounds.

These devices can be carried under your arm, in a backpack, or attached to a mobility device. Many of these machines come with their own carry cart for ease of travel. Portable oxygen concentrators can run on a range of power sources, such as wall outlets, car adapters, or battery packs.

Recent research has proven portable oxygen concentrators to be effective in increasing exercise tolerance in patients with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). A 2021 study of individuals with COPD found that participants who used a portable oxygen concentrator during physical activity were able to exercise for longer and experienced less shortness of breath.

In most cases, portable oxygen concentrators are used in addition to a stationary concentrator. Combined, stationary oxygen concentrators and portable oxygen concentrators offer patients the reliability of an at-home device and the convenience of one they can use outside the home.

Continuous flow of oxygen

Oxygen concentrators deliver oxygen using different systems, which are known as “continuous flow” and “pulse dose.” In continuous flow delivery systems, oxygen is carried to the patient at a steady, unchanging rate and levels will not adjust for changes in the individual’s breathing. 

If your breathing rate remains relatively stable throughout the day and you are less physically active, a continuous flow oxygen concentrator may be a good fit for your needs. Continuous flow delivery systems can be beneficial to those with sleep apnea, as these types of oxygen concentrators ensure the patient receives an uninterrupted flow of oxygen throughout the night.

Pulse dose oxygen

In oxygen concentrators that contain pulse dose systems, oxygen is provided based on the individual’s breathing. When the patient inhales, oxygen is delivered at levels that are customised to their breathing rate. Pulse dose oxygen concentrators contain sensitive operating mechanisms that monitor breathing in order to determine how much oxygen the user needs.

The advanced technology within pulse dose devices makes them very effective, but this delivery system may not be suitable for everyone. Breathing irregularities that occur during sleep (such as mouth breathing) may fail to trigger the release of oxygen in a pulse dose oxygen concentrator. Some machines are programmed to sound an alarm when this happens, which can result in patients awakening frequently throughout the night. For this reason, continuous flow devices are often preferred and recommended for nighttime use.

The best type of oxygen concentrator for you will depend on your personal circumstances and preferences — it’s essential to consider your treatment requirements as well as when and where you’ll be using your oxygen concentrator most. When choosing an oxygen concentrator, consult with your doctor to determine whether continuous flow or pulse dose oxygen therapy is best suited to your needs.