What's the Difference Between a Respirator, Ventilator, and Oxygen Concentrator?

Whats the Difference Between a Respirator, Ventilator, and Oxygen Concentrator?

Medical terminology can be very challenging to understand sometimes. Even with the abundance of resources we have nowadays in order to research and understand these terms, there are always certain things that will be lost in translation. The oxygen industry, for example, is rife with terms that many people don’t entirely understand. This can lead to a lot of confusion when it comes to discussing them with your friends, family, or doctor. 


In this post, we’ll take a look at some of the most commonly misused respiratory terms including but not limited to respirators, ventilators, and oxygen concentrators. Whether you’re someone with a respiratory condition like chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) or asthma, or you’re just interested in this topic, you should find this guide useful. If you have any questions about what you read, be sure to leave them in the comment section so that we can help clarify.


What is a Respirator?

A respirator is a type of mask that covers the user’s nose and mouth. They’re designed to reduce the wearer’s risk of inhaling hazardous substances that could damage the lungs and body in general. All respirators must be certified by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) or the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH).



Respirators are used in both medical and industrial settings. In a medical setting, respirators are used by healthcare professionals to filter infectious diseases out of the air that they breathe. Since we first discovered coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2), you’ve likely heard the term “N95 masks” thrown around. This refers to a type of respirator that’s specifically designed to filter out viruses. N95 filtering facepiece respirators (FFR) remove 95% of very small particles (0.3 microns).



Industrial respirators, on the other hand, are designed to protect the wearer against harmful airborne particles found in an industrial setting. Airborne particles are divided into three different groups: small, medium, and large. Small particles are less than 1 micron in diameter, medium particles are between 1 and 100 microns in diameter, and large particles are greater than 100 microns in diameter.  


Generally speaking, respirators are used by healthcare workers and industrial workers. Many national and local laws require these people to use NIOSH-certified masks while they’re on the job in order to prevent the spread of infectious disease and to prevent long-term lung damage. Most people need to be trained on how to use respirators correctly because there can’t be any air leaks. What’s more, respirators may be hazardous for people with chronic respiratory conditions like COPD or asthma.


Medical respirator


Respirators should not be confused with surgical masks. A surgical mask is a very loose-fitting piece of cloth that’s only designed to filter out very large particles. Surgical masks are worn by the general public to help prevent the spread of COVID-19 as well as other infectious diseases, but they are not an all-in-one solution. If preventing the spread of disease is your goal, you will still need to follow all of the guidelines outlined by the World Health Organization (WHO) like maintaining 6 feet of distance from the nearest person and staying home if you feel sick.


What is a Ventilator?

Ventilators have an entirely different function than respirators. A ventilator is a machine that helps patients with the mechanical act of breathing. It helps push breathable air into the lungs and removes carbon dioxide-rich air from the lungs. Ventilators are typically used in hospitals and they’re designed to help patients who have severely impaired lungs or diaphragmatic muscles and are unable to breathe on their own. They’re also used in patients who have suffered brain trauma. 


Man in bed with ventilator

There are two different types of ventilation: non-invasive ventilation and invasive ventilation. Non-invasive ventilation can be done at home via a special machine and face mask, however invasive ventilation requires a medical professional. During invasive ventilation, a tube will be inserted into the airways either via the mouth or a surgical incision in the neck. There are two different methods used to administer ventilation to a patient: positive-pressure ventilation and negative-pressure ventilation.


Positive pressure ventilation was invented in the 1950s and it’s considered the standard, however, negative-pressure ventilation is rarely used today. CPAP, BiPAP, and APAP are all types of non-invasive ventilation that can be done at home. 


What is an Oxygen Concentrator?

Simply put, an oxygen concentrator is an electronic device that supplies patients with medical-grade oxygen. Unlike ventilators, an oxygen concentrator does not force air into the lungs. It simply releases oxygen that can be inhaled by the user. Oxygen concentrators are used to treat a variety of conditions, but chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and cystic fibrosis (CF) are among the most common.

The Best Portable Oxygen Concentrators

Oxygen concentrators work by taking in ambient air and removing nitrogen dioxide, argon, and other impurities. It then concentrates the oxygen and outputs it through a nasal cannula that’s attached to the patient’s face. There are two different methods of delivery for oxygen concentrators: continuous flow and pulse flow. The former is a constant stream of oxygen and the latter is the delivery of oxygen in puffs called “boluses” only when the user inhales.


Since oxygen therapy is often prescribed for 14 hours or more every day, most patients prefer to have a portable option so that they can get out of the house. Fortunately, there are portable oxygen concentrators available, and they’re very lightweight and reliable. The Caire FreeStyle Comfort, for example, is one of the lightest and most powerful portable oxygen concentrators ever produced. It weighs just 5 pounds, provides up to 16 hours of battery life on one charge, and has a maximum oxygen output of 1,050 milliliters per minute (ml/min) of medical-grade oxygen.


Caire Oxygen Concentrators

The FreeStyle Comfort isn’t the only outstanding POC on the market, however. Another popular pulse dose unit is the Inogen One G5. This machine weighs in at just 4.7 pounds with a maximum oxygen output of 1,260 ml/min of medical-grade oxygen, and 13 hours of battery life on one charge. For its weight, the G5 puts out more oxygen than any other POC ever produced and its battery life is nothing to joke about either. Inogen also has a long history of customer satisfaction.


Inogen One G5 Portable Oxygen Concentrator


The last POC we need to mention is the Respironics SmplyGo. This one differs from the last two in that it’s a continuous flow portable oxygen concentrator. In fact, it’s the lightest continuous flow POC ever produced. If your doctor prescribes you continuous flow oxygen, this will likely be your best option because it’s only 10 pounds which is significantly lighter than any other option on the market. There are many things to look for in an oxygen concentrator, so be sure to check out this guide before making your decision.

Respironics SimplyGo

What are Nebulizers and Inhalers?

Nebulizers and inhalers are respiratory devices used to administer medication to the lungs. If you have a chronic respiratory ailment like COPD or pulmonary fibrosis, sometimes it is more effective to administer medication directly to the lungs, rather than taking an oral tablet which will need to go through the bloodstream. Nebulizers and inhalers are similar, but they’re used in different scenarios.



A nebulizer is a tabletop machine that takes liquid medication and turns it into a fine mist called “aerosol.” This aerosol is then inhaled through a mouthpiece. An inhaler does the same thing, but it’s much smaller and lighter so you can take it anywhere. The problem with inhalers, however, is that they require you to precisely time your inhalation in order for them to be effective. Nebulizers allow you to inhale the medication at your own pace.


Most people with COPD, asthma, or pulmonary fibrosis will use some combination of nebulizer and inhaler therapy. You’ll likely use your nebulizer for long-term treatment and your inhaler can be used while you’re out of the house as a “rescue Inhaler.” In other words, you’ll use fast-acting bronchodilators that open your airways in the event that you experience an exacerbation.


What are CPAP, BiPAP, and APAP Machines?

CPAP, BiPAP, and APAP are all different types of positive airway pressure (PAP) therapy. They’re used exclusively by people with sleep disorders, especially obstructive sleep apnea (OSA). This is when the muscles in the throat relax during sleep causing breathing to stop momentarily. Complications of sleep apnea include cardiovascular problems, daytime fatigue, eye problems, and more.

CPAP machine

Essentially, positive airways pressure is designed to keep the airways open during sleep and prevent any disruptions. If a patient has both a chronic lung disease and obstructive sleep apnea, a continuous flow oxygen concentrator can be bled into the PAP therapy device to ensure they are able to maintain their blood oxygen levels. There are three different types of PAP therapy machines, so it’s important to understand how they differ.


Much like a continuous flow oxygen concentrator, constant positive airway pressure (CPAP) machines put out a consistent stream of high-pressure air. For many OSA patients, CPAP machines will work just fine because you simply need to turn the device on before you sleep and it will run all night. However, the problem with CPAP therapy is that the same air is being applied when you’re exhaling. If this causes difficulty exhaling, it could lead to a buildup of CO2 in your system. 


CPAP machine

BiPAP machines are an alternative to CPAPs which have two different pressure settings: one for inhalation and one for exhalation. This will afford you more comfort as you exhale and reduce the risk of you retaining CO2 as you exhale. An auto-adjustable positive airway pressure device (APAP) takes this one step further with an array of pressure settings to account for fluctuations in your sleep patterns. These are the most advanced type of PAP therapy device, but they’re also the most expensive. Be sure to consult with your doctor to determine which one is best for you.



While all of the above medical devices are concerned with respiratory health, they all have very different functions. Respirators filter out harmful particles, ventilators help patients with the mechanical act of breathing, oxygen concentrators supply medical-grade oxygen, and PAP machines prevent the airways from collapsing during sleep.


Whether you’re someone with COPD, asthma, sleep apnea, or any number of other conditions that affect the respiratory system, it’s important to be clear about the differences between the devices above. If you have any questions about what you read here, don’t hesitate to leave them in the comment section below.

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