Question 6

Describe the pharmacology of oxygen.

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College Answer

Oxygen can be regarded as a ‘drug’ and the best answer will describe oxygen with such a
perspective in mind. A good answer would require good understanding and integration of
knowledge from different parts of the syllabus.
Most candidates mentioned the oxygen is an odourless and colourless gas and its effects on
pulmonary pressure and atelectasis. Common omissions included the clinical uses oxygen
other than reversing hypoxia, pharmaceutic properties of oxygen, pharmacodynamic response
of different body systems (CVS, CNS, RESP) to hyperoxia, and pharmacokinetics of oxygen
including distribution & transfer of oxygen between body systems and the metabolism of
Syllabus: B1f, B1h, B1i, B2a, C1f, O1.
Reference: Nunn’s applied respiratory physiology.


Physico-chemical properties of oxygen

  • Oxygen (O2)is a diatomic gas with a density and viscosity slightly higher than that of air. 
  • Conventional "wall" oxygen is delivered at approximately 4 atmospheres of pressure (415 kPa) and is close to 0°C at the wall outlet.


  • As an inhaled agent via a selection of fixed or variable performance delivery devices
  • As intravenous or intra-arterial infusion of well-oxygenated blood (i.e. ECMO)
  • Externally (as in hyperbaric oxygen therapy)


  • Pulmonary absorption (250ml/min with 21% FiO2, at rest)
  • Cutaneous absorption (under 1ml/min at normal atmospheric pressure)
  • Oral (and other) mucosal absorption (usually, nil)


  • Metabolised in all tissues (mainly brain, heart and skeletal muscle)
  • Mainly metabolised by cytochrome c mitochondrial enzymes (90%)
  • Zero-order clearance kinetics, roughly 200ml/minute
  • Main metabolites are CO2 and H2O, cleared via the lung and renally. 

Indications for use

  • Supplementation (in hypoxemia)
  • Prophylaxis (in pre-oxygenation for anaesthesia)
  • As an antidote (carbon monoxide toxicity)
  • Therapeutic uses:
    • As an antibiotic (hyperbaric oxygen for deep anaerobic infections)
    • To decrease the volume of air-filled body cavities by denitrogenation (eg. pneumothorax and pneumoencephalus)
    • In management of decompression sickness


  • Bleomycin use (leads to pulmonary fibrosis)
  • Paraquat toxicity (worsens ARDS)
  • Aspiration of acid (worsens ARDS)


  • Drying of mucous membranes and inspissation of secretions
  • Inflammatory tracheobronchitis
  • Decreased central respiratory drive (minimally)
  • Hypecapnoea in "CO2 retainers" mainly by virtue of V/Q mismatch and Haldane effect
  • Absorption atelectasis
  • Increased left-to-right shunting in ASDs
  • Increased peripheral vascular resistance
  • Cerebral and coronary vasoconstriction
  • Euphoria
  • Retrolental fibroplasia of the newborn
  • Decreased erythropoiesis
  • Immunosuppression


  • Visual changes and seizures (hyperbaric) 
  • Toxicity from free radicals (worsening ARDS)


  • Few uses are evidence-based
  • Evidence does not support the use of supraphysological oxygen in most cases, i.e. hyperoxia is discouraged.


Bitterman, Haim. "Bench-to-bedside review: oxygen as a drug." Critical Care 13.1 (2009): 205.

O'Driscoll, B. R., et al. "BTS guideline for oxygen use in adults in healthcare and emergency settings." Thorax 72.Suppl 1 (2017): ii1-ii90.

Jindal, S. K. "Oxygen therapy: important considerations." INDIAN JOURNAL OF CHEST DISEASES AND ALLIED SCIENCES 50.1 (2008): 97.

Zierold, Dustin, et al. "Supplemental oxygen improves resolution of injury-induced pneumothorax.Journal of pediatric surgery 35.6 (2000): 998-1001.

Sjöberg, Folke, and M. Singer. "The medical use of oxygen: a time for critical reappraisal." Journal of internal medicine 274.6 (2013): 505-528.

Vincent, Jean-Louis, Fabio Silvio Taccone, and Xinrong He. "Harmful effects of hyperoxia in postcardiac arrest, sepsis, traumatic brain injury, or stroke: The importance of individualized oxygen therapy in critically ill patients." Canadian respiratory journal 2017 (2017).

Comer, P. B. "The pharmacokinetics of oxygen administration." Respiratory therapy 6.6 (1976): 8-132.