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What is high nasal flow oxygen therapy and can it help COVID-19 patients?

COVID-19 is a respiratory illness and because of this, one of the significant challenges to effective treatment is the need to supply enough oxygen to the patient.

In the early stages of the Coronavirus outbreak in the UK, much of the focus was on manufacturing enough ventilators to cope with the number of intensive care patients.

One alternative that is proving beneficial in some parts of the world is high nasal flow oxygen therapy, which is more effective than a simple oxygen mask but does not require a ventilator.

High nasal flow oxygen therapy

This technique occupies a middle-ground position between the two, with heated and humidified oxygen supplied via a nasal cannula at up to 60 litres per minute.

High flow nasal oxygen, or HFNO, does not require technical expertise to perform, unlike ventilators, which can only be fitted by highly qualified physicians.

Again, this makes HFNO well suited to parts of the world where the availability of qualified medical professionals is low, or during parts of the pandemic when healthcare providers are themselves infected or self-isolating.

Because the oxygen is warm and humidified up to 95-100%, it does not dry the nose and throat or lower the patient’s body temperature, making it a sustainable treatment method.

Importantly, it also does not require the patient to be unconscious, or prevent them from eating, drinking and speaking.

Benefits of using high nasal flow oxygen therapy today

Running costs are lower than ventilators and the cannula, sometimes referred to as nasal prongs, can be disposed of after use, removing the need to sterilise them to avoid infection in subsequent users.

There are some drawbacks – HFNO is not a high-pressure oxygen therapy, which delivers oxygen directly into the lungs. Instead, patients must be able to breathe in the oxygen from the cannula without mechanical assistance.

However, HFNO can avoid some of the trauma and inflammation associated with ventilation, making it a preferred option for serious but not severe cases of COVID-19.

Perhaps most importantly of all, HFNO is an affordable, sustainable treatment option for patients who need some oxygen therapy to stay comfortable and continue to fight off their infection, allowing healthcare providers around the world to battle this disease without becoming overwhelmed.