What are nasal cannulas and face masks?

Nasal cannulas and face masks are used to deliver oxygen to people who don’t otherwise get enough of it. They are commonly used to provide relief to people with respiratory disorders.

A nasal cannula consists of a flexible tube that is placed under the nose. The tube includes two prongs that go inside the nostrils. A face mask covers the nose and mouth.

Both methods of delivery attach to oxygen sources, which come in a variety of sizes.

Nasal cannulas and simple face masks are typically used to deliver low levels of oxygen. Another type of mask, the Venturi mask, delivers oxygen at higher levels. Sometimes nasal cannulas are also used to deliver high levels of oxygen.

Why are nasal cannulas and face masks used?

Nasal cannulas and face masks are typically used to treat people who have respiratory conditions such as:

They can also be administered in hospitals to people who have experienced trauma or acute conditions such as heart failure.

Benefits of oxygen therapy include more energy and ease with breathing.

Learn more: Oxygen therapy »

How are nasal cannulas and face masks used?

Before prescribing treatment, your doctor will perform some tests to measure how much oxygen you already have in your blood. They may take a sample with a needle or use a sensing device. When placed against your finger or toe, the sensing device, called a pulse oximeter, uses light to measure the amount of oxygen in your blood. No blood draw or needle is necessary.

Oxygen can be administered with nasal cannulas or face masks in hospitals, clinics, or specialized care facilities. It can also be administered in a home setting or even on the go. Some devices are portable and can be slung over a person’s shoulder.

Venturi masks provide a constant, preset level of oxygen. They are commonly used to control a person’s carbon dioxide retention as well as to supply supplemental oxygen.

Nasal cannulas are the most common method for oxygen delivery. This is primarily because they are less intrusive than other options and allow a person to eat and speak freely.

What are the risks of nasal cannulas and face masks?

People with nasal cannulas sometimes experience nasal dryness, particularly when receiving oxygen at high levels. New devices can help with this symptom by adding moisture and warmth to the delivery process.

Despite its benefits, oxygen therapy does not come risk-free. Several complications can develop with extended treatment of high levels of oxygen. In some cases, people may develop lung damage or a condition known as pulmonary oxygen toxicity. It can also cause damage to the eyes.

Contact your doctor if you notice a bluish tint to your lips or fingernails, or if you begin to have difficulty breathing while on supplemental oxygen.

What is the outlook for nasal cannulas and face masks?

Oxygen therapy can improve a person’s quality of life for many years. Being able to breathe more easily allows a person to engage in more activities during the day, have a better night’s sleep, and potentially a longer lifespan.

Sometimes supplemental oxygen is needed only during sleep or exercise. If you experience skin irritation due to the fit of the device, your doctor may be able to adjust it. Over-the-counter ointments may help with chafing of the nose.

It’s important to remember that oxygen is extremely flammable. Post “No smoking” signs in all areas where oxygen is administered. Keep other flammable items away as well, including aerosols, candles, and stoves.

Other delivery methods