Routine use of oxygen in people who have had a heart attack

Many people who are having a heart attack are routinely given oxygen to breathe. We looked for the evidence to support this practice by searching for randomised controlled trials that compared the outcomes for people given oxygen to the outcomes for those given normal air to breathe. We were primarily interested in seeing whether there was a difference in the number of people who died, but we also looked at whether administering oxygen reduced pain.

We found four randomised controlled trials that compared one group given oxygen to another group given air. These trials involved a total of 430 participants of whom 17 died. In that group, more than twice as many people known to have been given oxygen died compared to those known to have been given air. However, because the trials had few participants and few deaths, this result does not necessarily mean that giving oxygen increases the risk of death. The difference in numbers may have occurred simply by chance. Nonetheless, since the evidence suggests that oxygen may in fact be harmful, we think it is important to evaluate this widely-used treatment in a large trial as soon as possible, to make sure that current practice is not causing harm to people who have had a heart attack.

Authors' conclusions: 

There is no conclusive evidence from randomised controlled trials to support the routine use of inhaled oxygen in people with AMI. A definitive randomised controlled trial is urgently required, given the mismatch between trial evidence suggestive of possible harm from routine oxygen use and recommendations for its use in clinical practice guidelines.

Read the full abstract...

Oxygen (O₂) is widely used in people with acute myocardial infarction (AMI) although it has been suggested it may do more harm than good. Previous systematic reviews have concluded that there was insufficient evidence to know whether oxygen reduced, increased or had no effect on heart ischaemia or infarct size, as did our original Cochrane review on this topic in 2010. The wide dissemination of the lack of evidence to support this widely-used intervention since 2010 may stimulate the needed trials of oxygen therapy, and it is therefore important that this review is updated regularly.


To review the evidence from randomised controlled trials to establish whether routine use of inhaled oxygen in acute myocardial infarction (AMI) improves patient-centred outcomes, in particular pain and death.

Search strategy: 

The following bibliographic databases were searched last in July 2012: the Cochrane Central Register of Controlled Trials (CENTRAL) (The Cochrane Library), MEDLINE (OVID), EMBASE (OVID), CINAHL (EBSCO) and Web of Science (ISI). LILACS (Latin American and Caribbean Health Sciences Literature) and PASCAL were last searched in May 2013. We also contacted experts to identify any studies. We applied no language restrictions.

Selection criteria: 

Randomised controlled trials of people with suspected or proven AMI (ST-segment elevation myocardial infarction (STEMI) or non-STEMI), less than 24 hours after onset, in which the intervention was inhaled oxygen (at normal pressure) compared to air and regardless of cotherapies provided these were the same in both arms of the trial.

Data collection and analysis: 

Two authors independently reviewed the titles and abstracts of identified studies to see if they met the inclusion criteria, and independently undertook the data extraction. The quality of studies and the risk of bias were assessed according to guidance in the Cochrane Handbook. The primary outcomes were death, pain and complications. The measure of effect used was the risk ratio (RR) with a 95% confidence interval (CI).

Main results: 

The updated search identified one new trial. In total, four trials involving 430 participants were included and 17 deaths occurred. The pooled RR of death was 2.05 (95% CI 0.75 to 5.58) in an intention-to-treat analysis and 2.11 (95% CI 0.78 to 5.68) in participants with confirmed AMI. While suggestive of harm, the small number of deaths recorded means that this could be a chance occurrence. Pain was measured by analgesic use. The pooled RR for the use of analgesics was 0.97 (95% CI 0.78 to 1.20).