Longterm Effects of Oxygen Therapy in Premature Infants

Lynsey Keep, RN
oxygen premature baby

Longterm effects of oxygen therapy in premature infants are predominantly beneficial. For babies born before 33 weeks gestation, oxygen therapy can play a crucial role in neonatal treatment immediately after birth.

The Need for Oxygen Therapy

Babies that are born prematurely are always at risk of health complications, primarily due to their underdeveloped bodies. Respiratory problems are a common complication in the premature infant, and as a result, oxygen therapy is usually necessary.

Longterm Effects of Oxygen Therapy in Premature Infants: Good and Bad

Oxygen therapy is highly beneficial to the immediate post-birth problems a premature infant will experience. While there are many benefits of the use of oxygen therapy in neonates, there are also a few negative elements to this life saving treatment.

Positive Effects

Respiratory distress syndrome (RDS) is a condition common in premature infants. It occurs when the immature lungs of the neonate fail to function properly, due to a lack of an important liquid in the lungs, called surfactant. This vital liquid enhances the inflation of the lungs, and in the absence of sufficient levels, oxygen plays a major part in supporting the adequate inflation of the lungs.

The administration of oxygen, by means of artificial ventilation, or simple inhalation through a nasal tube, can mean the difference between the life and death of the infant. Oxygen plays a vital role in supplying the lungs, brain and other vital organs in the body, and without it, organs can fail, as they cannot adequately function.

Apart from the lungs, premature babies are at significant risk of having other, less well-developed organs. The earlier an infant is born, before his due date, the greater likelihood he has of having existing, or developing physical or developmental problems.

The longterm effects of oxygen therapy in premature infants is also a benefit to:

  • Development of the brain and reducing the risk of learning difficulties
  • The growth and function of vital organs, such as the liver and kidneys
  • Perfusion to the skin, supporting growth of healthy skin tissue

Negative Effects

Bronchopulmonary dysplasia (BPD) is another common defect of the lungs, particularly to the birth of extremely low birth weight premature babies. This condition is attributed to scarring on the lungs, primarily due to the immaturity of the lung tissue. BPD is typically diagnosed when a premature infant still requires oxygen therapy after 28 days. It is not clear what causes this serious condition, however, because an infant with BPD is likely to require oxygen therapy via mechanical ventilation. An infant can also develop respiratory distress syndrome, due to increased pressure exerted on the lungs.

Another serious condition attributed to use of oxygen therapy in the premature infant is retinopathy of prematurity (ROP). This condition affects the eyes, in particular the retina. In severe cases, it can cause extensive optical damage, or blindness.

Many infants are born with this condition, before oxygen therapy has even been used. However, it is believed that the high pressure caused by the administration of oxygen to the brain and rest of the body can contribute further to the condition.

Parental Dilemma

Oxygen therapy for the treatment of premature infants has been practiced since the late 1800's, when the first incubators were introduced.

When parents go through the distressing experience of having a baby prematurely, the use of oxygen is unlikely to be an issue. When informed of the benefits and risks associated with oxygen therapy, the dilemma faced is whether to risk a precious infant having organ, brain or tissue damage, versus the risk of retinal damage or blindness.

The importance in all cases is that parents are adequately informed of the longterm effects of oxygen therapy in infants, so that decisions regarding treatment can be made with informed choice.

Longterm Effects of Oxygen Therapy in Premature Infants