What to Know About Over-the-Counter Oxygen

Jan 18, 2024
Fact Checked
Over-the-counter oxygen may not be safe for people with chronic respiratory conditions.

  • Over-the-counter (OTC) oxygen canisters can provide a boost of oxygen after intense physical activity or at high altitudes.
  • Prescription oxygen devices are the safest way to receive supplemental oxygen therapy if you have a respiratory condition.
  • The Food and Drug Administration (FDA), American Lung Association (ALA), and American Association of Respiratory Care (AARC) do not recommend using OTC oxygen canisters for oxygen therapy.

Our Reviews Team recommends products and services we believe provide value in the lives of our readers. We’ve spent more than 1,000 hours carrying out in-depth research on each HOC to give you the most accurate review. To make our selections, we:

  • Engaged in independent research
  • Consulted with three geriatric care experts
  • Mystery shopped four brands and five models of portable oxygen concentrators
  • Reviewed academic research into the efficacy of portable oxygen concentrators
  • Read real reviews from verified customers on trusted third-party websites, such as the Better Business Bureau (BBB) and Trustpilot

Small, hand-held supplemental oxygen tanks are advertised to support athletic performance and improve symptoms of altitude sickness, hangovers, and jet lag. Although these low-cost, canned oxygen containers are available without a prescription, they’re not appropriate alternatives to medical-grade oxygen, portable oxygen concentrators or home oxygen concentrators. Our Reviews Team researched how OTC oxygen works and what you should consider before purchasing any canisters.

What is over-the-counter oxygen?

OTC oxygen canisters are concentrated oxygen devices you can buy without a prescription at pharmacies and drug stores. Canned oxygen should only be used for recreational purposes and cannot replace medical-grade prescription supplemental oxygen.

The air around us typically contains 21% oxygen, and the rest is made up of nitrogen and other gasses. [1]NASA. 10 Interesting Things About Air. Sept. 12, 2016. Found on the internet at https://climate.nasa.gov/news/2491/10-interesting-things-about-air/ OTC oxygen canisters contain much more concentrated amounts. Companies advertise the canisters contain up to 95% pure oxygen.

Some canned oxygen comes unscented, while others have grapefruit, peppermint, or rosemary aromas. According to the ALA, people with lung conditions should avoid scented products. [2]American Lung Association. Cleaning Supplies and Household Chemicals. Found on the internet at https://www.lung.org/clean-air/at-home/indoor-air-pollutants/cleaning-supplies-household-chem

OTC oxygen is not recommended for people with pre-existing conditions, like:

Do over-the-counter oxygen tanks work?

OTC oxygen may be helpful if you have mild altitude sickness or want additional airflow following a strenuous workout, but the evidence is scarce. Customer reviews on Trustpilot for one brand are mixed, with some people claiming the extra oxygen was refreshing, while others felt no effects at all.

You cannot control the rate and flow of oxygen with OTC models. The devices features a mask that covers your nose and mouth and a trigger to release the oxygen from the canister into your mouth and lungs. This means there is no precise way of knowing how much oxygen you dispense with each squeeze of the trigger. Measuring your blood oxygen levels with a pulse oximeter is a good way to gauge how much oxygen you receive from any type of supplemental oxygen.

Is over-the-counter oxygen safe?

The FDA does not regulate or approve OTC oxygen and recommends seeing a health care provider to determine how much oxygen you should take. [3]US Food and Drug Administration. Pulse Oximeters and Oxygen Concentrators: What to Know About At-Home Oxygen Therapy. Feb. 19, 2021. Found on the internet at https://www.fda.gov/consumers/consumer-updates/pulse-oximeters-and-oxygen-concentrators-what-know-about-home-oxygen-therapy

The AARC cited concerns about the safety of OTC oxygen for people other than healthy athletes or those traveling in areas with high altitudes. [4]American Association for Respiratory Care. Oxygen Canisters – Should You be Concerned? May 27, 2021. Found on the internet at https://www.aarc.org/an21-oxygen-canisters-should-you-be-concerned/ The AARC’s review of OTC oxygen highlighted an important warning label on canisters that reads “This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease. For Recreational Purposes Only. This product is NOT for Medical or Prescription use.”

The ALA also issued a warning about using non-prescription oxygen concentrators to treat respiratory conditions.

“You may have seen online advertisements for non-prescription, portable oxygen concentrators. While these are often more affordable, if you have a lung disease like COPD or pulmonary fibrosis, which requires you to use prescription oxygen, these OTC devices may not meet your oxygen needs, and it would be important to speak with your health provider before purchasing,” the ALA said in a statement. [5]American Lung Association. Oxygen Therapy. May 5, 2023. Found on the internet at https://www.lung.org/lung-health-diseases/lung-procedures-and-tests/oxygen-therapy

The Pulmonary Fibrosis Foundation (PFF) recommends patients only use FDA-approved devices and warns canned oxygen may provide an inadequate flow. [6]Pulmonary Fibrosis Foundation. Pulmonary Fibrosis Foundation Position Statement on Non-prescription Supplemental Oxygen. April 5, 2023. Found on the internet at https://www.pulmonaryfibrosis.org/researchers-healthcare-providers/clinical-resources/position-statements/non-prescription-supplemental-oxygen The PFF acknowledges people may opt for OTC oxygen to save money because medical-grade oxygen is more expensive. To address this issue, PFF joined 23 other patient, professional, and industry groups to advocate for legislative changes to supplemental oxygen supply, education, and reimbursement. [7]Pulmonary Fibrosis Foundation. We Need Changes to the Way Patients Receive Supplemental Oxygen. Feb. 10, 2023. Found on the internet at https://www.pulmonaryfibrosis.org/patients-caregivers/education-resources/pff-insights-blog/post/pff-insights/2023/02/10/we-need-changes-to-the-way-that-patients-receive-supplemental-oxygen

Additionally, health care providers warn about purchasing OTC oxygen concentrators instead of prescription models. In a test of three different OTC oxygen concentrators, researchers found two were not suitable for people with pulmonary conditions. [8]Casaburi R, et al. Evaluation of Over-the-Counter Portable Oxygen Concentrators Utilizing a Metabolic Simulator. Respiratory Care. 2023. PDF https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/36400446/

“Though these [OTC] devices are not explicitly advertised for this purpose, the marketing material and documentation associated with these devices may suggest the possibility of medical use, which may be confusing and/or misleading to consumers,” the study concluded. [8]Casaburi R, et al. Evaluation of Over-the-Counter Portable Oxygen Concentrators Utilizing a Metabolic Simulator. Respiratory Care. 2023. PDF https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/36400446/

While OTC oxygen may be safe for some people, the lack of regulation makes it an unsafe alternative to prescription devices.

Where can I buy over-the-counter oxygen tanks?

You can purchase 5 and 10 liter oxygen canisters at pharmacies, sporting goods stores, and online. They are also available in larger containers and quantities.

Are over-the-counter oxygen tanks worth buying?

No evidence-based science currently supports the effectiveness of OTC oxygen. You should use an abundance of care when considering these products.

“OTC oxygen tanks should be approached with caution, and patients should be aware of the potential risks associated with using these devices without proper medical evaluation and supervision,” said Muhammad Jan, MD, a cardiology specialist in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, affiliated with Aurora Medical Center Grafton.

“The safest and most effective option for oxygen therapy is to rely on FDA-approved prescription portable oxygen canisters prescribed by qualified health care professionals,” Jan said.

Bottom line

Brands selling OTC oxygen canisters claim the products can enhance athletic performance and alleviate the symptoms of altitude sickness, hangovers, and jet lag. Medical organizations warn consumers that these are not FDA-approved and may pose potential harm if not used as intended.

People with pre-existing respiratory conditions should seek medical care to determine if they need supplemental oxygen. Purchasing FDA-approved prescription oxygen equipment is the safest way to complete oxygen therapy. If you experience shortness of breath, seek professional medical attention.

Frequently asked questions


OTC oxygen canisters have many negative reviews for not working as advertised or, in some cases, not working at all. These devices have some positive reviews online from people using them to ease altitude sickness.

No. You can buy an OTC oxygen tank at pharmacies, stores, and online.

No. You have to pay out of pocket.

OTC oxygen canisters are not FDA-approved. Only prescription oxygen devices are FDA-approved for supplemental oxygen therapy.

Have questions about this review? Email us at reviewsteam@ncoa.org.

Sources

  1. NASA. 10 Interesting Things About Air. Sept. 12, 2016. Found on the internet at https://climate.nasa.gov/news/2491/10-interesting-things-about-air/
  2. American Lung Association. Cleaning Supplies and Household Chemicals. Found on the internet at https://www.lung.org/clean-air/at-home/indoor-air-pollutants/cleaning-supplies-household-chem
  3. US Food and Drug Administration. Pulse Oximeters and Oxygen Concentrators: What to Know About At-Home Oxygen Therapy. Feb. 19, 2021. Found on the internet at https://www.fda.gov/consumers/consumer-updates/pulse-oximeters-and-oxygen-concentrators-what-know-about-home-oxygen-therapy
  4. American Association for Respiratory Care. Oxygen Canisters – Should You be Concerned? May 27, 2021. Found on the internet at https://www.aarc.org/an21-oxygen-canisters-should-you-be-concerned/
  5. American Lung Association. Oxygen Therapy. May 5, 2023. Found on the internet at https://www.lung.org/lung-health-diseases/lung-procedures-and-tests/oxygen-therapy
  6. Pulmonary Fibrosis Foundation. Pulmonary Fibrosis Foundation Position Statement on Non-prescription Supplemental Oxygen. April 5, 2023. Found on the internet at https://www.pulmonaryfibrosis.org/researchers-healthcare-providers/clinical-resources/position-statements/non-prescription-supplemental-oxygen
  7. Pulmonary Fibrosis Foundation. We Need Changes to the Way Patients Receive Supplemental Oxygen. Feb. 10, 2023. Found on the internet at https://www.pulmonaryfibrosis.org/patients-caregivers/education-resources/pff-insights-blog/post/pff-insights/2023/02/10/we-need-changes-to-the-way-that-patients-receive-supplemental-oxygen
  8. Casaburi R, et al. Evaluation of Over-the-Counter Portable Oxygen Concentrators Utilizing a Metabolic Simulator. Respiratory Care. April 2023. PDF https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/36400446/
Lauren Evoy Davis is a health journalist with expertise in cancer and other chronic conditions. Lauren holds an MA in Journalism from American University and a BA in English from Elon University. Her work has been published by the American Society of Clinical Oncology, Legacy, Health Central, WebMD, Verywell Health, Patient Power, and Verizon.
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Elizabeth U. Lyda Medical Reviewer
Elizabeth Lyda, RRT, holds a bachelor of science degree from Empire State College and associate of science degree with a certificate in Respiratory Care from Mansfield State University, and has been a respiratory therapist since 1983. She was named Respiratory Therapist of the Year in 2007 from the University of Rochester and remains licensed in the state of New York.
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