High Flow Oxygen Therapy


I have been a “fanboy” for high flow oxygen therapy (HFOT) for a couple of decades, particularly once high flow nasal canula (HFNC) became available. While this was a bit of a cottage industry, coveted by those of us in critical care (and to a lesser extent in anesthesiology), once the COVID 19 pandemic took hold, high flow was everywhere. And everyone, it seemed, had an (ill informed) opinion about this therapy. So, before I introduce this tutorial, about which I procastinated for years, I have to register a disclaimer: the evidence to support a lot of the “beliefs” about high flow oxygen is scant. Most of the claimed “benefits” beyond treating hypoxemia are industry generated hypotheses without rigorous scientific data. Nevertheless, this put me in a difficult predicament when constructing the tutorial – if I limit the discussion to just the facts that I am certain about – it would be very short. Conversely, by describing alternative “benefits” I take the risk of hyping hypotheses (e.g. CO2 clearance) that may be incorrect…..

High Flow Oxygen Therapy (HFOT), particularly when delivered by nasal cannula (HFNC) has revolutionized the management of the patient with hypoxic respiratory failure – in particular in those patients whose lung pathology has plateaued or those resposive to medical treatment (antibiotics, steroids etc). High flow systems have been available for decades – they involve the use of a high pressure oxygen source, and oxygen air blender (air can be entrained into this device), a high flow flowmeter, a humidifier, a heated delivery tube and a delivery device: CPAP mask, T-Piece with PEEP valve, Tracheostomy or specially designed nasal cannula.

In this tutorial I describe the various devices configurations that are available – ranging from very straightforward standalone machines, to full mechanical ventilators. Regardless of device the major goal is to deliver sufficient flow to meet patient demand – resolving the problem of peak flow and separating out the FiO2 from the flow rate. I postulate that, at flows in excess of 30L per minute, and depending on the diameter of the nasal cannula, the patient’s anatomy and whether the mouth is open (and by how much!) – the patient likely receives a couple of cmH2O of pressure support and 3-5cmH2O of PEEP. So it represents mild CPAP (certainly a CPAP device delivering high flow at 5cmH2O will outperform HFNC). There is a dearth of non industry funded data on how HFOT may benefit the patient. Certainly these devices are very effective at targeting SpO2 and reducing the work of breathing. Certainly they increase non hypoxic apneic duration. Conversely – purported impacts on dead space washout, alveolar ventilation and CO2 clearance are currently unproven. I describe how this may work in the tutorial, but point out that this is principally a belief not a fact. HFNO may also improve mucociliary clearance – due to the high flow of humidified gas passing into the airways. However no-one, to my knowledge, has addressed whether constant flow of heated humidified gas for prolonged periods damages the lung mucosa.

In the second part of the tutorial I talk about how HFOT should be used in clinical practice and the scenarios in which it is beneficial (hypoxemia, weaning and liberation) and when it is not (hypercarbic respiratory failure, post op respiratory failure secondary to atelectasis).

I guarantee that you will learn something.


Tutorial 14 Mechanisms of Hypoxemia Part 2

This tutorial explains ventilation perfusion mismatch. It will provide you with a platform for understanding oxygen therapy – which I introduce towards the end. I also deal with the concept of oxygen induced hypercarbia. I guarantee you will learn something.  

Contents of This Tutorials:

Ventilation-Perfusion Relationships

Gravity and Blood and Gas Distribution Through the Lungs

Gas and Blood Distribution Through Diseased Lungs

Simplistic Ventilation-Perfusion From Dead Space to Shunt

Stale Gas Within Alveoli

Ventilation Perfusion Relationships – Slimy, Soggy and Stick Alveolar Units

Supplemental Oxygen Therapy For Bronchopneumonia

“Targeted Oxygen Therapy”

When Does Oxygen Therapy Fail? [Shunt]

COPD Flair

Why Does Hyperoxia Cause Hypercarbia (VQ mismatch theory)

The Haldane Effect