Oxygen Bars: Is a Breath of Fresh Air Worth It?

Peppermint, bayberry, cranberry, wintergreen. Breath mints? Scented candles? No--they're "flavors" of oxygen offered at your local oxygen bar. Since oxygen bars were introduced in the United States in the late 1990s, the trend has caught on, and customers are bellying up to bars around the country to sniff oxygen through a plastic hose (cannula) inserted into their nostrils. And many patrons opt for the "flavored" oxygen produced by pumping oxygen through an aroma en route to the nose.

The oxygen experience in a bar can last from a few minutes to about 20 minutes, depending on customers' preferences and the size of their wallets. The price of about a dollar a minute could leave you gasping for air, but frequent inhalers may get a discount.

Most oxygen bar proprietors are careful not to make medical claims for their product, and state that their oxygen is not a medical gas--it's made and offered strictly for recreational use. But under the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act, any type of oxygen used by people for breathing and administered by another person is a prescription drug. "It doesn't matter what they label it," says Melvin Szymanski, a consumer safety officer in the Food and Drug Administration's Center for Drug Evaluation and Research (CDER). "At the other end of the hose is oxygen, and the individual that provides you with the nasal cannula and turns on the canister for your 20-minute supply is actually dispensing the prescription drug oxygen to you."

Although oxygen bars that dispense oxygen without a prescription violate FDA regulations, the agency applies regulatory discretion to permit the individual state boards of licensing to enforce the requirements pertaining to the dispensing of oxygen, says Szymanski. Many states choose to allow oxygen bars; others discourage the businesses by requiring strict compliance with the law. However, serious health claims made for oxygen, such as curing cancer or AIDS, or helping ease arthritis pain, would be investigated by the FDA, adds Szymanski.

Healthy or Just Hype?

Oxygen fans tout the benefits of oxygen as reducing stress, increasing energy and alertness, lessening the effects of hangovers, headaches, and sinus problems, and generally relaxing the body. But there are no long-term, well-controlled scientific studies that support these claims for oxygen in healthy people. And people with healthy lungs don't need additional oxygen, says Mary Purucker, M.D., Ph.D., a pulmonary specialist in CDER. "We've evolved for millions of years in an atmosphere of about 21 percent oxygen."

The American Lung Association says that inhaling oxygen at oxygen bars is unlikely to have a beneficial physiological effect, but adds "there is no evidence that oxygen at the low flow levels used in bars can be dangerous to a normal person's health."

People with certain medical conditions are another matter. Some need supplemental oxygen, but should not go to oxygen bars, says Purucker. People with some types of heart disease, asthma, congestive heart failure, pulmonary hypertension, and chronic obstructive pulmonary diseases, such as emphysema, need to have their medical oxygen regulated carefully to oxygenate their blood properly, says Purucker. "If they inhale too much oxygen, they can stop breathing."

People who have received bleomycin, a chemotherapy used to treat some types of cancer, are in danger if they are exposed to high levels of oxygen for too long, adds Purucker. "People think oxygen is good, but more is not necessarily better."

One of the FDA's biggest concerns about oxygen bars is the use of "flavored" oxygen, says Purucker. The flavor is produced by bubbling oxygen through bottles containing aromatic solutions and then pumping the vaporized scent through the hose and into the nostrils. Some bars use oil-free, food-grade particles to produce the aroma, but others may use aroma oils. Inhaling oily substances can lead to a serious inflammation of the lungs, known as lipoid pneumonia. Even if an oil-free medium is used, the purity or sterility of the aerosol that is generated cannot be guaranteed. Susceptible customers run the risk of inhaling allergens or irritants that may cause them to wheeze. Inhalation of live contaminants such as bacteria or other pathogens may lead to infection.

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