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What is Liquid Breathing?

Mary McMahon
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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Liquid breathing is a type of respiration where people breathe an oxygenated liquid, rather than air. Long the stuff of science fiction, liquid breathing has a number of useful applications in the real world, and it has been the subject of extensive research. One obvious use is in diving, where it can assist with adjustments to pressurized environments. Doctors can also use liquid breathing in medical treatment of premature infants and people with lung damage caused by severe infections, smoke inhalation, and similar events.

In liquid breathing, the patient breathes a perfluorocarbon mixture with high oxygen concentrations. The mixture is heavy, sinking to the bottom of the lungs. It will open up the alveoli, allowing for gas exchange to take place. Typically, the entire lung is not filled, with the breathing mixture instead filling only a portion of the lung. When it is time to stop the liquid breathing, the patient's breathing apparatus can stop introducing fluid, allowing the existing perfluorocarbon to evaporate away so the patient can breathe air again.

In diving, using incompressible liquids can make diving at great depths safer. It can also prevent the need for extended decompression stops to allow a diver's body to adjust to lower pressures. People who dive and surface too quickly are at risk of serious medical problems caused by dissolved gases in the bloodstream, and some of these issues can be addressed with liquid breathing. While breathing liquid can be traumatic at first, most people grow accustomed.

In medical care, liquid breathing can help keep the lungs open. It is possible to mix medications into the liquid to treat issues like infection. Fluids such as water, pus, and so forth will rise to the top of the perfluorocarbon solution because they are lighter, allowing doctors to suction them out more easily to clear the patient's lungs. Many liquid ventilator systems can use existing medical technology, requiring no special retrofitting for a hospital to provide breathing treatments to patients with lung problems.

Accessibility of liquid breathing technology varies. Some of the most extensive research takes place in military settings, where divers can experiment with different kinds of breathing systems as part of their work. Military medical research also tends to be highly advanced, and the applications of this technique to treatment of lung trauma and damage are of particular interest in battlefield medicine, where affordable and easily-implemented treatments can greatly increase the quality of patient care.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a The Health Board researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By Charred — On Mar 20, 2012

@NathanG - It’s not that hard, when you think about it. I’ve you’ve ever been to the dentist and asked for the “laughing gas” then you already have some familiarity with breathing gas.

This is a little different, but not so much. In this case, as the stuff enters into your lungs, it’s liquid by nature. However at some point when it enters in your lungs it opens up and releases the gas.

So really you just have to put up with the first few moments as it’s coursing into your lungs in a fluid state. After that it becomes gas and it will probably feel like you are just breathing regular air. That will help you overcome the gag reflex.

By NathanG — On Mar 19, 2012

@David09 - Breathing liquid oxygen makes sense in medical settings, where you’re pretty much already hooked up to IV machines and stuff like that.

I might be willing to breathe liquid oxygen in that case. In other settings, I don’t know. You mentioned water going down the wrong pipe. Well, you have this gag reflex when that happens, and it seems to me that you would have to overcome that reflex in order to allow the fluid in your lungs.

It would take considerable training I suppose. Divers and astronauts might be able to do it but I don’t think I would manage too well personally.

By David09 — On Mar 19, 2012

@Mammmood - Have you ever heard the expression “water went down the wrong pipe”? It’s when you try to take a drink and it goes down into your lungs (or it feels that way).

Somehow that’s the picture I get from this liquid breathing technology, except in this case I would be deliberately imbibing fluid into my lungs. I’m with you. It doesn’t inspire confidence.

My initial reaction would be to cough the stuff up. However, I think that it does have some practical applications. In addition to the diving scenarios described in the article, it might benefit astronauts in deep space travels.

I am not talking about dunking them in cryogenic solutions, just providing them with enough fluid to meet their oxygen needs for a long time. Their food and water is packaged and freeze dried, so why not bottle some air in fluid for the long journey?

By Mammmood — On Mar 18, 2012

I guess I understand where the science fiction connection comes from. Just reading this description brings back images of people suspended in cryogenic solutions where they are breathing through these tubes.

I never understood the mechanism for breathing until now. It’s good to know that we’ve taken it out of the realm of science fiction into science reality, but it’s still a dicey proposition in my opinion.

As you breathe this fluid, you need to have confidence that it will settle in your lungs and then open up and deliver oxygen. You are relying on a breathing apparatus to deliver the liquid solution to your lungs.

What if something goes wrong with the liquid breathing apparatus and you can’t breathe properly? Personally, I’d rather stick with the good, old fashioned method of breathing air directly.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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