An Overview of Nasal Cannulas

Nasal cannulas are medical devices used when people are unable to get sufficient oxygen to keep their body functioning optimally, whether that's due to a condition like chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), another respiratory disorder, or an environmental change. Nasal cannulas (and the oxygen sources they connect to) are lightweight, easy to use, and affordable. They may be used in a variety of hospital settings, at home, or on-the-go.

Female patient with nasal cannula
Science Photo Library / Getty Images

How They Work

A nasal cannula is a small, flexible tube that contains two open prongs intended to sit just inside your nostrils. The tubing attaches to an oxygen source and delivers a steady stream of medical-grade oxygen to your nose.

The oxygen concentration used with nasal cannulas is relatively low, though high-flow cannulas do exist; these allow output that's similar to that of a continuous positive airway pressure systems (CPAP). Your healthcare provider will calibrate your oxygen supply to the proper level for your needs.

Nasal cannulas are less invasive than other oxygen delivery systems, most of which involve a face mask. In contrast, nasal cannulas generally don't prohibit regular eating and talking, and they are pretty portable.

When They're Used

Using a nasal cannula means you'll have increased oxygen levels, and hopefully increased energy and reduced fatigue, as you'll be able to breathe easier during the day and sleep better at night.

Your healthcare provider may recommend you use a nasal cannula if you have any of the following conditions:

A nasal cannula may also be used in newborns with underdeveloped lungs (bronchopulmonary dysplasia), as well as acute cases such as heart failure, trauma, or when you're in high altitudes, as oxygen levels are naturally lower.

Risks and Considerations

One side effect of using a nasal cannula is ensuing nasal dryness, which is fairly common as cold, dry oxygen is streamed into your nostrils. However, some oxygen units come equipped with warming humidifiers, or these may be available as a separate attachment. Warm, moist air combats the effects of dryness.

While generally regarded as safe, there are several risks to consider before using any form of supplemental oxygen. Namely, long-term use has been linked to lung damage, eye damage (resulting from pressure buildup), and a condition called pulmonary oxygen toxicity, in which too much oxygen exists in the body and may result in damage to airways.

Oxygen is also highly flammable, so care must be taken to avoid encountering cigarettes, candles, stoves, etc.

Cost and Insurance

The cost of a nasal cannula ranges from around $20 to $50, depending on the length and number of disposable tubes involved.

With sufficient proof, most insurance companies and Medicare will cover nasal cannulation. Generally, the following criteria is assessed:

  • Your healthcare provider can prove that your health would improve with oxygen therapy.
  • You have severe lung disease and oxygen may help.
  • You have arterial blood gases within a certain range.
  • Alternative measures have failed.

In these cases, insurance will likely cover the cost of the oxygen-supplying system, the oxygen containers, and any necessary tubing/attachments required to deliver the oxygen. Medicare may require you to rent the oxygen equipment/systems for 36 months before continuing to supply them to you for up to five years.

The cost covers routine maintenance. Check with your insurance company to discuss your personal benefits and inclusions.

Maintenance

Most manufacturers advise that patients change their nasal cannulas once a week for regular daily use or up to a month for sporadic use.

Cleaning Your Nasal Cannula

You can prolong the life of your cannula by taking proper care of it and washing it regularly. The biggest danger in not doing so is a buildup of bacteria, which may lead to infection.

After each use, clean the cannula with an alcohol wipe. If you use oxygen continuously, take a break to disinfect the cannula at least once or twice a day (or more if you are congested). Getting sick can be very dangerous for people with respiratory conditions like COPD, so you need to be vigilant about this.

For a deeper clean, soak the tubing in warm water with a small amount of dish soap and white vinegar, which is a good bacteria killer that won’t eat away at the tubing material.

Once you have thoroughly washed the cannula, rinse it well in cold water to be sure all the soap and bacteria have been removed. Hang the cannula to dry before using it again.

Changing the Cannula

Likewise here, change your cannula any time you have been sick or feel like you may be coming down with something to avoid exposure to bacteria.

Be sure to keep extra supplies on hand so you can change the cannula whenever necessary. Make sure you take stock of your supplies and order replacements long before you run out.

As always, follow your healthcare provider’s instructions for how often you should change your nasal cannula and the proper care and maintenance of your equipment.

A Word From Verywell

Nasal cannulation is a relatively noninvasive way of providing oxygen that may greatly improve your quality of life. Having sufficient air to breathe can make a world of difference in performing your daily activities, giving you more energy, and helping reduce fatigue. Talk to your healthcare provider about whether nasal cannula-delivered oxygen is right for you and your condition.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What is a nasal cannula used for?

    A nasal cannula is used to supply oxygen to a person who cannot get enough oxygen to sustain normal body functioning. It is commonly used for people with lung diseases like COPD or acute illness. The cannula connects to an oxygen source, such as an oxygen tank. 

  • How do you clean a nasal cannula?

    Clean the cannula with an alcohol wipe after each use or a few times a day if you use continuous oxygen. To deep clean the cannula, soak it in warm water with a small amount of dish soap or white vinegar. Rinse thoroughly with cold water to remove all the soap and bacteria. Allow the cannula and tubing to dry thoroughly before using again. 

  • How much oxygen does a nasal cannula deliver?

    A standard nasal cannula delivers between one-half liter and 6 liters of oxygen per minute. Oxygen delivered at higher rates using a traditional nasal cannula can dry out sinus passages and lead to nosebleeds. 

    High-flow nasal cannula therapy delivers humidified and heated oxygen and can flow at a rate of up to 60 liters per minute. 

6 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  3. Lodeserto FJ, Lettich TM, Rezaie SR. High-flow nasal cannula: mechanisms of action and adult and pediatric indications. Cureus. 2018;10(11):e3639. doi:10.7759/cureus.3639

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Additional Reading