How HBO—the treatment, not the TV network—could help doctors fight COVID-19

Hyperbaric oxygen therapy can help fight covid-19
A nurse and patient inside a hyperbaric chamber at Mariners Hospital, in Tavernier, Fla. PHOTO: STEPHEN FRINK

In a world full of acronyms—NASA, scuba, and, yes, COVID, among others—it may seem imponderable that one of the most well-known has gone largely unmentioned during discussions of the novel coronavirus. I mean, how could HBO get left behind?

The answer is both complicated and promising. But at its heart is this: As it pertains to the virus, HBO is most certainly not something you can find with your remote.

Rather, we’re talking about the acronym for a treatment that we’ve used for nearly a century to address various maladies: hyperbaric oxygen, or HBO in the medical shorthand. And although the research is still young, the early results from HBO’s use on COVID-19 patients range from encouraging to surprisingly strong.

Despite this, we’ve heard very little about hyperbaric oxygen and its apparent ability to help patients fight some of the virus’s effects. I review volumes of medical literature each week, and even I was surprised to discover how little there was on this topic until it appeared in a physician chat group recently.

A little about the basics: During HBO treatment, a patient is placed in a sealed single- or multi-person chamber, where high levels of oxygen are delivered to the lungs, and then absorbed into the bloodstream under pressure. This is very similar to what happens when a scuba diver breathes oxygen from a tank at depth—more oxygen enters the tissues. And HBO has been found over the years to advance healing and successfully treat a variety of conditions, including burns, soft-tissue infections, and chronic wounds. It has a long track record of safety.

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