High-flow nasal cannulae for breathing support in adult intensive care patients


A common reason for intensive care unit (ICU) admission is the need for breathing (or respiratory) support. HFNC are small plastic tubes that sit inside the nostrils and deliver a heated mix of air and oxygen at high flow rates to patients requiring breathing support. They are used frequently in the ICU, yet no clear evidence shows whether they provide patients with long-term benefits such as reduced ICU stay or improved chances of survival.

Study characteristics

The evidence is current to March 2016. We included in the review 11 studies with 1972 participants. Most participants had respiratory failure, or had just been taken off an artificial breathing machine. Included studies compared HFNC with low-flow oxygen given through face masks, through low-flow cannulae, or through devices that use mild pressure to aid oxygen delivery. We reran the search in December 2016 and will deal with any studies of interest when we update the review.

Key results

We found no evidence that HFNC reduced the rate of treatment failure or risk of death compared with low-flow oxygen devices. We found no evidence of any advantages for HFNC in terms of adverse event rates, ICU length of stay, or duration of respiratory support. We observed no differences in participants' blood oxygen levels or carbon dioxide blood levels, and we noted that any differences in breathing rates were small and were not considered clinically important. Studies reported no differences in patient-rated measures of comfort. Only one study found evidence of less dry mouth when HFNC was used.

Quality of evidence

Most studies had reported methods inadequately, and we did not know whether risk of bias may have affected study results. We identified few eligible studies and noted some differences among participants within our included studies, particularly in reasons for requiring respiratory support. We used the GRADE system to rate the evidence for each of our outcomes, and we judged all evidence to be of low or very low quality.


We were not able to collect sufficient evidence from good quality studies to determine whether HFNC offer a safe and effective way of delivering respiratory support for adults in the ICU.

Authors' conclusions: 

We were unable to demonstrate whether HFNC was a more effective or safe oxygen delivery device compared with other oxygenation devices in adult ICU patients. Meta-analysis could be performed for few studies for each outcome, and data for comparisons with CPAP or BiPAP were very limited. In addition, we identified some risks of bias among included studies, differences in patient groups, and high levels of statistical heterogeneity for some outcomes, leading to uncertainty regarding the results of our analysis. Consequently, evidence is insufficient to show whether HFNC provides safe and efficacious respiratory support for adult ICU patients.

Read the full abstract...

High-flow nasal cannulae (HFNC) deliver high flows of blended humidified air and oxygen via wide-bore nasal cannulae and may be useful in providing respiratory support for adult patients experiencing acute respiratory failure in the intensive care unit (ICU).


We evaluated studies that included participants 16 years of age and older who were admitted to the ICU and required treatment with HFNC. We assessed the safety and efficacy of HFNC compared with comparator interventions in terms of treatment failure, mortality, adverse events, duration of respiratory support, hospital and ICU length of stay, respiratory effects, patient-reported outcomes, and costs of treatment.

Search strategy: 

We searched the Cochrane Central Register of Controlled Trials (CENTRAL; 2016, Issue 3), MEDLINE, the Cumulative Index to Nursing and Allied Health Literature (CINAHL), Embase, Web of Science, proceedings from four conferences, and clinical trials registries; and we handsearched reference lists of relevant studies. We conducted searches from January 2000 to March 2016 and reran the searches in December 2016. We added four new studies of potential interest to a list of ‘Studies awaiting classification' and will incorporate them into formal review findings during the review update.

Selection criteria: 

We included randomized controlled studies with a parallel or cross-over design comparing HFNC use in adult ICU patients versus other forms of non-invasive respiratory support (low-flow oxygen via nasal cannulae or mask, continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP), and bilevel positive airway pressure (BiPAP)).

Data collection and analysis: 

Two review authors independently assessed studies for inclusion, extracted data, and assessed risk of bias.

Main results: 

We included 11 studies with 1972 participants. Participants in six studies had respiratory failure, and in five studies required oxygen therapy after extubation. Ten studies compared HFNC versus low-flow oxygen devices; one of these also compared HFNC versus CPAP, and another compared HFNC versus BiPAP alone. Most studies reported randomization and allocation concealment inadequately and provided inconsistent details of outcome assessor blinding. We did not combine data for CPAP and BiPAP comparisons with data for low-flow oxygen devices; study data were insufficient for separate analysis of CPAP and BiPAP for most outcomes. For the primary outcomes of treatment failure (1066 participants; six studies) and mortality (755 participants; three studies), investigators found no differences between HFNC and low-flow oxygen therapies (risk ratio (RR), Mantel-Haenszel (MH), random-effects 0.79, 95% confidence interval (CI) 0.49 to 1.27; and RR, MH, random-effects 0.63, 95% CI 0.38 to 1.06, respectively). We used the GRADE approach to downgrade the certainty of this evidence to low because of study risks of bias and different participant indications. Reported adverse events included nosocomial pneumonia, oxygen desaturation, visits to general practitioner for respiratory complications, pneumothorax, acute pseudo-obstruction, cardiac dysrhythmia, septic shock, and cardiorespiratory arrest. However, single studies reported adverse events, and we could not combine these findings; one study reported fewer episodes of oxygen desaturation with HFNC but no differences in all other reported adverse events. We downgraded the certainty of evidence for adverse events to low because of limited data. Researchers noted no differences in ICU length of stay (mean difference (MD), inverse variance (IV), random-effects 0.15, 95% CI -0.03 to 0.34; four studies; 770 participants), and we downgraded quality to low because of study risks of bias and different participant indications. We found no differences in oxygenation variables: partial pressure of arterial oxygen (PaO2)/fraction of inspired oxygen (FiO2) (MD, IV, random-effects 7.31, 95% CI -23.69 to 41.31; four studies; 510 participants); PaO2 (MD, IV, random-effects 2.79, 95% CI -5.47 to 11.05; three studies; 355 participants); and oxygen saturation (SpO2) up to 24 hours (MD, IV, random-effects 0.72, 95% CI -0.73 to 2.17; four studies; 512 participants). Data from two studies showed that oxygen saturation measured after 24 hours was improved among those treated with HFNC (MD, IV, random-effects 1.28, 95% CI 0.02 to 2.55; 445 participants), but this difference was small and was not clinically significant. Along with concern about risks of bias and differences in participant indications, review authors noted a high level of unexplained statistical heterogeneity in oxygenation effect estimates, and we downgraded the quality of evidence to very low. Meta-analysis of three comparable studies showed no differences in carbon dioxide clearance among those treated with HFNC (MD, IV, random-effects -0.75, 95% CI -2.04 to 0.55; three studies; 590 participants). Two studies reported no differences in atelectasis; we did not combine these findings. Data from six studies (867 participants) comparing HFNC versus low-flow oxygen showed no differences in respiratory rates up to 24 hours according to type of oxygen delivery device (MD, IV, random-effects -1.51, 95% CI -3.36 to 0.35), and no difference after 24 hours (MD, IV, random-effects -2.71, 95% CI -7.12 to 1.70; two studies; 445 participants). Improvement in respiratory rates when HFNC was compared with CPAP or BiPAP was not clinically important (MD, IV, random-effects -0.89, 95% CI -1.74 to -0.05; two studies; 834 participants). Results showed no differences in patient-reported measures of comfort according to oxygen delivery devices in the short term (MD, IV, random-effects 0.14, 95% CI -0.65 to 0.93; three studies; 462 participants) and in the long term (MD, IV, random-effects -0.36, 95% CI -3.70 to 2.98; two studies; 445 participants); we downgraded the certainty of this evidence to low. Six studies measured dyspnoea on incomparable scales, yielding inconsistent study data. No study in this review provided data on positive end-expiratory pressure measured at the pharyngeal level, work of breathing, or cost comparisons of treatment.