Is It Harmful to Breathe 100 Percent Oxygen?

By: Marshall Brain  | 

You breathe a mixture of mostly oxygen and nitrogen to stay alive. So what would happen if you breathed only oxygen? Viaframe/Getty Images

As you surely know, humans need oxygen to live. But Earth's atmosphere is made up of about 78 percent nitrogen, 21 percent oxygen and trace amounts of other elements, including water vapor.

So have you ever wondered if breathing 100 percent oxygen would be good for you? The short answer is it's not. Pure oxygen can actually can be harmful and sometimes even toxic. To understand why, let's first explain some details about how your lungs work.


Your lungs are made up of a long series of tubes that branch from your nose and mouth (from your trachea to bronchi to bronchioles) and end in little thin-walled air sacs called alveoli.

Surrounding each alveolus are small, thin-walled blood vessels called pulmonary capillaries. Between the capillaries and the alveolus is a thin wall (about 0.5 microns thick) through which various gases (oxygen, carbon dioxide and nitrogen) pass.

When you inhale, the alveoli expand and take in oxygen. Because the oxygen concentration is high in the alveoli and low in the blood entering the pulmonary capillaries, oxygen diffuses from the air into the blood. Likewise, because the concentration of carbon dioxide is higher in the blood entering the capillaries than it is in the alveolar air, carbon dioxide passes from the blood to the alveoli. The nitrogen concentration in the blood and the alveolar air is about the same. The gases exchange across the alveolar wall and the air inside the alveoli becomes depleted of oxygen and rich in carbon dioxide. When you exhale, you breathe out this carbon dioxide enriched, oxygen-poor air.


Just Breathe

So what would happen if you breathed in 100 percent oxygen? Nothing good, that's for sure. Breathing 100 percent oxygen at normal pressure can cause acute oxygen poisoning, which can lead to all sorts of symptoms, including:

  • Fluid in the lungs, hyperventilation or labored breathing
  • Chest pains, mild burning on inhalation and uncontrollable coughing (sometimes with blood)
  • Visual changes such as blurring and tunnel vision
  • Headache, dizziness and disorientation
  • Collapsed alveoli — a condition called atelectasis — that can lead to pulmonary edema
  • Fever
  • Myopia and cataract formation

However, astronauts in the Gemini and Apollo programs breathed 100 percent oxygen at reduced pressure for up to two weeks with no problems.


And you don't need to worry about ever breathing 100 percent oxygen except in rare cases. Some scuba diving rebreathing devices — F.R.O.G.S. (full range oxygen gas systems) — use 100 percent oxygen for intensive underwater work; they're designed mostly for use by special forces. Also, people being treated in hyperbaric chambers for the bends or for acute carbon monoxide poisoning will breathe 100 percent oxygen, and will be carefully monitored during their treatment.

So unless you find yourself in any of these situations, you'll likely be breathing the perfect blend of nitrogen and oxygen that sustains human life.


Originally Published: Oct 19, 2000

Breathe Oxygen FAQ

Is breathing pure oxygen bad for you?
Human blood is designed to capture oxygen and safely bind it to a molecule known as hemoglobin. However, if you breathe in a high concentration of oxygen, it will overwhelm the blood, disrupting the central nervous system, damaging the lungs, heart and brain.
How much oxygen do we inhale and exhale?
The average human being inhales and exhales a total of 11,000 liters of air per day. Inhaled air has about 20 percent oxygen and exhaled is roughly 15 percent oxygen by mass.
Are oxygen bars harmful?
Oxygen bars should not be used by anyone with pre-existing respiratory or vascular conditions. However, if you're healthy and want to try an oxygen bar, you can try it out.
What machine helps you breathe?
When a person's lungs fail to function as they should, a person is put on a breathing machine called a ventilator that mimics respiration, maintaining adequate levels of oxygen in the blood.