Breathing Basics - Nasal Cannula - What is it? How to Make Sure it’s Used Properly

Nasal cannulas can help improve the quality of life for people with chronic health or aging problems. It can help deliver supplemental oxygen to the lungs, allowing people to breathe more comfortably and enjoy everyday activities.

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Breathing Basics - Nasal Cannula - What is it? How to Make Sure it’s Used Properly
5 Min Read March 23rd, 2023

We take breathing for granted, but health problems and aging can make breathing more difficult. Breathing problems can significantly impact the health and quality of life of older people or those with chronic illnesses. When a person has difficulty breathing, it can affect their ability to perform daily activities, such as walking, climbing stairs, or even talking. This can result in reduced physical activity, social isolation, and depression.

In addition to physical symptoms, breathing problems can cause psychological distress, such as anxiety, fear, and panic leading to further worsening symptoms, as stress and anxiety can make breathing even harder.

The number of people in the United States who require supplemental oxygen varies. The number of people depends on various factors such as age, underlying health conditions, and environmental factors. However, about 1.5 million people in the U.S. receive home oxygen therapy, and the numbers are expected to increase as the population ages. 

Additionally, many patients require supplemental oxygen during hospitalization or other medical treatments, such as those with acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS), pneumonia, or other respiratory illnesses. According to the American Lung Association, supplemental oxygen may be required for various respiratory disorders, such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), asthma, pulmonary fibrosis, cystic fibrosis, and lung cancer.

It's also worth noting that the COVID-19 pandemic has significantly increased the number of patients requiring supplemental oxygen in hospitals and at home. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that up to 17% of COVID-19 patients require supplemental oxygen and the height of the virus crisis.

Nasal Cannula Delivers Supplemental Oxygen

A nasal cannula is a device to deliver supplemental oxygen or increased airflow to a patient or person needing respiratory help. It consists of a lightweight tube that splits on one end into two prongs placed in the nostrils and from which air and oxygen flow. 

Commonly used in medical settings, nasal cannulas deliver supplemental oxygen to patients. They consist of two small prongs inserted into the nostrils and connected to a tube that supplies oxygen from an oxygen supply. The oxygen flow through the nasal cannula can be adjusted based on the patient's needs.

Nasal cannulas are frequently used in situations where patients are experiencing respiratory distress, such as in treating chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), pneumonia, or acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS). They may also be used when a patient receives anesthesia or sedation during a medical procedure.


Nasal cannulas are generally a non-invasive way to deliver supplemental oxygen. They are commonly used in long-term care settings to provide supplemental oxygen to patients with COPD or emphysema. Patients with these conditions may require oxygen therapy on a long-term basis to help improve their breathing and quality of life, and it can be used both at home and in a facility.

Nasal cannulas are preferred over other oxygen delivery methods in long-term care settings because they are lightweight, comfortable, and easy to use. Patients can wear them for extended periods of time without discomfort, and they can be easily adjusted to deliver the appropriate flow rate of oxygen.

In addition to their use in delivering oxygen, nasal cannulas can also be used to measure a patient's respiratory rate and to provide humidification to prevent dryness and irritation of the nasal passages.

Two Types of Nasal Cannulas

There are two types of nasal cannulas: low flow and high flow. Low-flow cannulas can provide oxygen at up to 5 liters per minute (L/min), delivering an oxygen concentration of 28–44%. High-flow cannulas can provide oxygen at up to 60 L/min, delivering an oxygen concentration of up to 100%.

Professional in-home health providers can easily and safely help the care recipient with their breathing needs. However, if you are managing a loved one's health, it can feel complicated for untrained family members, even for something as seemingly simple as inserting a cannula. 

There is no reason to feel overwhelmed by how to manage the technical details of the treatment. Some older adults can even manage it themselves. Here are some of the basics of oxygen therapy; read on to learn how to insert a nasal cannula on yourself or another person properly.

Inserting a Nasal Cannula for Yourself

Before inserting a nasal cannula, you need to ensure you have the right one. If your doctor prescribed a high-flow rate, you need a high-flow nasal cannula. If your doctor prescribes a low-flow rate, you need a low-flow cannula. Cannulas can also come in different sizes, so test yours to ensure it fits comfortably in your nose without falling out or pushing too far back.

Connect the cannula to the tubing if it is not already connected. Then, connect the tubing to your oxygen source, such as a concentrator or tank. Adjust the flow rate to meet your prescription and pick up your cannula. Hold it so that the prongs face up and the curve faces down. Insert the prongs into your nostrils and fit the tubing over your ears. Adjust the slider on the tubing as needed.

Inserting a Nasal Cannula for Someone Else

If you care for a loved one who can't insert their nasal cannula themselves, then you can do so for them. Ensure the nasal cannula is clean, comfortable, and fits the prescribed flow rate. Connect the cannula to the tubing if it's not already attached, and then connect it to the oxygen source. Turn the oxygen source on and adjust it to your loved one's prescribed flow rate.

Next, pick up the cannula with two hands. Use your thumbs and forefingers on both hands to hold the tubing on either side of the cannula so that the prongs face up and the curve faces down. Gently slide the prongs into your loved one's nose and fit the tubing over their ears. Lastly, adjust the slider on the tubing, so it doesn't fall off.

Tips for Comfortably Wearing a Cannula

There's an adjustment period when it comes to wearing anything new, especially something that goes in the nose. Noses are sensitive, and you or your loved one may need to try different ways to get more comfortable with a nasal cannula.

Adjusting the slider, as we mentioned above, is the first way to make sure that the tubing and cannula are comfortable. If the tubing doesn't stay in place despite your adjustments, then you can tape the tubing down with facial tape. Keeping the tubing still is an integral part of cannula comfort since shifting tubing can cause the cannula to rub the inside of the nose.

Breathing problems can significantly impact the health and quality of life of older people or those with chronic illnesses. It's essential to work with health care providers to manage and treat these conditions to improve outcomes and prevent complications. 

Aging Increases Care Recipient’s Needs. Families Become Overwhelmed

As older adults' needs increase, family members become exhausted with providing for their daily needs while balancing the emotional burdens of caring for a loved one. Family members can be trained, but the quality of life improves with trained caregivers. 

Professional caregivers at someone's home or in a quality long-term care facility like assisted living facilities, improve the quality of life of the care recipient and give loved ones the time to be family. But long-term health care costs are increasing as the demand for care rises and labor costs continue to explode. These costs vary depending on the types of services an individual requires and where they live -

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While you can do your best for older adults who have not planned, have you thought about of your future long-term care needs would impact your family and finances? Being proactive and preparing before you retire will help you access your choice of quality care, protect your savings, and place less burden on those you love. For many families, this means adding a Long-Term Care Insurance policy to their retirement plan.

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About the Author

Mallory Knee is a freelance writer for multiple online publications where she can showcase her affinity for all things beauty and fashion. She particularly enjoys writing for communities of passionate women who come together for a shared interest and empower one another in the process. In her free time, you can find Mallory trying a fun new dinner recipe, practicing calligraphy, or hanging out with her family.

LTC News Contributor Mallory Knee

Mallory Knee

Contributor since September 25th, 2020

Editor's Note

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Get help finding quality caregivers or long-term care facilities and get recommendations for a proper care plan, whether a person has a policy. 

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