Healthcare worker with an Oxygen Mask

What to Know About Oxygen Masks—Exploring Use Cases and Differences from Gas Masks

by Kiril Krastanoff


What do firefighters, fighter pilots, and divers have in common? They all rely on specialized breathing equipment to ensure their safety. But how many of these professions require an oxygen mask?

If you answered all three of them, then that's not entirely incorrect. We know this can be confusing, and you might wonder how this information is useful. However, understanding the difference between oxygen masks and other breathing apparatuses is not just about clarifying terminology—it can potentially be a life-saving distinction.

In situations where access to clean air is compromised, such as medical emergencies or high-altitude environments, oxygen masks become indispensable for maintaining vital functions by delivering a steady oxygen flow.

Stick around to learn the different applications of oxygen masks and whether you should consider including them in your survival or emergency response kit.

Table of Contents

  • 01

    Understanding Oxygen Masks

  • 02

    Oxygen Masks or Self-Contained Breathing Apparatus?

  • 03

    Use Cases of Non-Rebreather Masks

  • 04

    Examining Venturi Masks

  • 05

    Oxygen Masks vs. Gas Masks vs. SCBA

  • 06

    Cons of Oxygen Masks During SHTF Situations

  • 07

    Gas Mask Alternatives for Civilians

  • 08

    Emergency Preparedness with Respirators

  • 09

    Frequently Asked Questions

Understanding Oxygen Masks

(Image courtesy of Tho-Ge)

Oxygen masks fill a vital niche in the respiratory protection system and have many use cases in the modern world. They serve as a crucial means of delivering supplemental oxygen to individuals when the surrounding air lacks sufficient oxygen levels or is compromised by pollutants or toxins.

You might think that oxygen masks are restricted to the confines of hospitals, or you might have seen emergency care units deploy them to injured patients. While one of the most common use cases of oxygen masks is indeed in healthcare, they are used in many other industries and scenarios.
Let's first explore what types of oxygen masks exist as an introduction to the topic:

Types of Oxygen Masks

There are a few different ways to deliver oxygen to a person in need, and each of them fills a different niche and is used in specific situations.

Nasal Cannula - These are lightweight tubes with prongs that fit into the nostrils, delivering a continuous flow of oxygen. They're commonly used for patients needing low to moderate oxygen levels. They offer comfort but may not provide high concentrations.

Simple Face Mask - Covering both the nose and mouth, simple face masks provide higher oxygen concentrations than nasal cannulas. They're used in acute care for patients with respiratory distress but may be less precise and uncomfortable for some.

Partial Rebreather Mask - Similar to simple face masks but with a reservoir bag allowing partial rebreathing, these masks deliver higher oxygen concentrations. They're used in scenarios requiring increased oxygen levels, like anesthesia induction, but require careful monitoring.

Continuous Positive Airway Pressure (CPAP) Mask - Connected to a CPAP machine, these masks treat sleep apnea by providing continuous airflow at prescribed pressure. While not traditional oxygen masks, they ensure open airways during sleep for patients with respiratory conditions.

Now that you better understand the different types of oxygen masks, you might wonder how they work to achieve their desired result.

Working Mechanism of Oxygen Masks:

(Image courtesy of Healthline)

The principle by which an oxygen mask works is straightforward to understand—delivering a controlled concentration of oxygen to a person's airways. However, balancing the oxygen supply is a delicate operation, and it's not as simple as turning on a switch.

One of the key features of oxygen masks is their adjustable flow rate, as too much oxygen can result in complications such as oxygen toxicity (yes, even too much of a basic component of breathable air is lethal).

We mentioned healthcare as the primary use of oxygen masks, but let's see what other industries use them and learn why different types of protection equipment are used:

Oxygen Masks or Self-Contained Breathing Apparatus?

Usage of Oxygen Masks in Aviation

(Image courtesy of Calle Macarone)

One of the first instances people encounter oxygen masks is during a pre-flight safety instruction. When we go onboard any airliner, the flight attendants show us where the oxygen masks deploy from and explain how to use them.

The reason we need oxygen supply in this case is because high-altitude air is very thin, and breathing it directly can cause a person to pass out. This is also why plane cabins are pressurized and why oxygen masks deploy if there is a breach in pressurization.

In this case, passenger oxygen masks ensure that the air they breathe is oxygenated until the plane reaches a lower altitude where air pressure is sufficient for regular breathing.

Self-Contained Breathing Apparatus (SCBA) and Dealing with Fires

(Image courtesy of Jay Heike)

Imagine another scenario where emergency responders are alerted to a forest fire, a scenario
that is sadly becoming more common, especially with frequent new temperature records.

As they arrive at the scene, firefighters are confronted with a myriad of challenges—including
intense heat, thick smoke, and toxic gasses—in such hazardous environments. You might ask,
“Why don't the firefighters use oxygen masks or gas masks?”

  • Due to the volume of toxins, a gas mask’s filter will deplete very rapidly, and breathing
    will become difficult.
  • As firefighters need to stay in this environment for a prolonged period, they require a
    specialized type of breathing apparatus.
  • SCBA plays a crucial role in providing firefighters with a continuous supply of breathable
    air, enabling them to perform their duties safely and effectively.

Note: Firefighters or emergency responders might use an oxygen mask to treat people with
carbon monoxide poisoning afterward, but only as a special care procedure.

For the average citizen, it's important to note that if you find yourself in such a fire situation, a
full-face respirator like the CM-8M Full-Face Respirator with a proper filter system should be
used to help you get away from the affected area.

Using a half-face respirator could leave your eyes exposed to fumes and reduce visibility, which
is why a full-face gas mask is recommended. While most HEPA-rated filters will remove many of
the harmful chemicals and particles found within the smoke, they aren't specially optimized for
carbon monoxide fumes.

For this reason, we offer specialized MIRA Safety VK-530 Smoke/ Carbon Monoxide Filter
Cartridges that are specifically built to protect you from smoke and carbon monoxide. Having
such a filter makes your bug-out or emergency escape kit much more versatile.

Now that you have a better understanding of why certain breathing apparatuses are used, let's
examine the use of non-rebreather masks.

Use Cases of Non-Rebreather Masks

(Image courtesy of Jonathan Borba)

Non-rebreather masks consist of a face mask that covers the nose and mouth, is attached to an
oxygen reservoir bag, and is connected to an oxygen source such as a portable oxygen cylinder
or wall-mounted oxygen supply.

The mask is equipped with one or more inlet valves that allow oxygen to flow into the mask and
a one-way valve that prevents exhaled air from entering the reservoir bag.

Unlike other oxygen masks, non-rebreather masks feature a one-way valve and reservoir bag,
allowing patients to inhale pure oxygen while preventing the rebreathing of exhaled air and
carbon dioxide.

Note: Non-rebreathing masks are not intended for home use and are typically reserved for
short-term applications, such as during patient transport to a medical facility.

Emergency Situations Requiring Non-Rebreather Masks:

Some situations where non-rebreather masks are used to optimize oxygenation and support
vital functions include:

  • Giving rapid support to individuals suffering from anaphylaxis or other severe allergic
  • Treating trauma and shock from accidents where patients have compromised respiratory
  • During cardiac emergencies, cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) non-rebreather
    masks are used to deliver a high oxygen flow and support vital organ oxygenation.

The main advantage of these masks is that they prevent the rebreathing of exhaled air and
carbon dioxide, ensuring a continuous flow of fresh oxygen to people in need.

They are also lightweight and quick to deploy, given that emergency responders already have
oxygen tanks filled up (unlike other oxygen masks that require more setup).

Examining Venturi Masks

Interchangeable Venturi Valves

Venturi masks are very specialized medical devices that are designed to deliver a precise
concentration of oxygen to patients. This is done via the use of special Venturi valves, with each
valve corresponding to a set percentage of oxygen delivery.

They utilize a unique mechanism involving diluter jets that let room air in at specific contractions
and then mix with the delivered oxygen supply ranging from 24% to 60% or higher, depending
on the specific valve used.

This level of customization ensures that patients receive the appropriate amount of oxygen to
maintain adequate oxygenation levels without the risk of over-oxygenation or hypoxia.

As the oxygen passes through the Venturi valve and diluter jets, it creates a precise mixture of
oxygen and room air at the desired concentration. This mechanism ensures consistent and
accurate oxygen delivery, making Venturi masks particularly useful in situations where precise
oxygenation levels are critical, such as in the management of certain respiratory conditions.

Note: Unlike Venturi masks, which are specifically engineered to deliver precise concentrations
of oxygen to patients with respiratory conditions, passenger masks are intended for general use
and do not incorporate the complex mechanisms found in Venturi masks.

Oxygen Masks vs. Gas Masks vs. SCBA

We have examined the different types of oxygen masks and shown examples of SCBA
equipment and use cases. We have also provided an example of how a gas mask can be used
when more complex SCBA equipment is not available to first responders.

Let's now examine how these three types of breathing and protective equipment compare, along
with their strengths and usability in various scenarios.

Functional Differences Between Oxygen Masks and Gas Masks

(Image courtesy of MIRA Safety)

To quickly recap the key functional differences between oxygen masks and gas masks:

Gas masks, also known as respirators, are specialized devices designed to protect the wearer
from inhaling harmful airborne contaminants such as chemical, biological, radiological, and
nuclear (CBRN) agents.

They feature filters or cartridges that remove specific types of contaminants from the air,
providing respiratory protection in hazardous environments where exposure to toxic substances
is a concern.

Oxygen masks, on the other hand, are primarily designed to deliver supplemental oxygen to
individuals who require respiratory support due to respiratory distress or lack of oxygen.

Key differences between oxygen and gas masks:

  • Oxygen masks do not filter out contaminants but instead provide a continuous flow of
    oxygen to the wearer's airways to support breathing and maintain adequate oxygenation
  • Oxygen masks DO NOT offer protection from outside elements or contaminants, and
    they only cover the nose and mouth.
  • A gas mask cannot replace an oxygen mask, and vice versa.

Pros of Gas Masks for Emergency Response

(Image courtesy of MIRA Safety)

As a prepper or as someone who just wants to have extra security and the ability to respond to
the widest array of threats, gas masks are the way to go.

Proper usage of a gas mask can prevent complications from breathing in harmful
chemicals or fumes that might later require intensive treatment with an oxygen mask.

  • Gas masks offer the ability to swap filters or exchange them to protect against specific
    contaminants, making them extremely flexible.
  • Furthermore, users can choose between half-face and full-face gas masks, depending
    on their exact needs.

This design makes it the best choice of protective equipment for preppers, as both masks and
filters are relatively compact and lightweight and can be deployed at lightning speed when

Gas Masks vs. Self-Contained Breathing Apparatus

(Image courtesy of MIRA Safety)

If all these terms and descriptions are confusing, don't worry; here is a streamlined breakdown
of the most important information:

When it comes to purpose and target contaminants, both SCBA and gas masks fulfill a similar
role. Like gas masks, an SCBA is used in environments where the atmosphere is immediately
dangerous to life or health (IDLH), such as firefighting or confined space rescue operations.

The key difference is that, as its name implies, SCBA gear comes with a breathing regulator, air
cylinder, and harness system, providing the wearer with a self-contained supply of breathable
air independent of the surrounding atmosphere.

Think of any SCBA as a backpack-sized life support system that gives you a steady supply of
air (not just pure oxygen like oxygen masks) directly from pressurized air tanks.

Differences between SCBA and oxygen masks and gas masks:

  • Oxygen masks are commonly used in medical settings, aircraft, and other environments
    where supplemental oxygen therapy is required to support respiratory function.
  • Oxygen masks, unlike SCBA and gas masks, are not designed for use in hazardous
    environments where exposure to toxic substances is a concern.
  • An SCBA, unlike a gas mask, provides the wearer with a continuous supply of
    breathable air, enabling them to safely operate in environments where the ambient air is
    hazardous or oxygen-deficient.

What about the actual considerations of their usability for regular civilians?

Cons of Oxygen Masks During SHTF Situations

(Image courtesy of MIRA Safety)

Armed with all this information, the next question one might ask is, “How useful are oxygen
masks during an SHTF scenario?” And indeed, there are some severe challenges that come
with using oxygen masks to save lives in a resource-limited environment.

Dependency on Oxygen Supply

The first one is a major bummer, as oxygen masks can't work without pre-filled oxygen tanks.

There is no way of getting around this limitation, as sourcing pure oxygen is an extremely
complex process, requiring advanced chemical processing technology and lots of energy, heat,
and electricity.

If you have a loved one who is currently relying on oxygen therapy, buying and storing
over-the-counter oxygen cans is not appropriate for medical-grade oxygen. Many of these cans
available at stores have around a 20% concentration of oxygen.

In a long-lasting SHTF scenario, your best bet would be to scavenge welding supplies, as
hospital-held canisters might already be depleted or scarce (like they were in a relatively recent
global scenario).

Restricted Movement and Location Dependence

Suppose you have oxygen tanks stockpiled via a prescription for medical use; that is all well
until there comes a time when you must bug out. This situation is even more complex, given the
fact that moving the oxygen tanks around requires a lot of labor, calories, or extra fuel.

The workaround here is to have such systems already in place in an area like your survival
shelter. The oxygen masks themselves aren't the issue here, as they are relatively cheap,
lightweight, and available at almost all medical supply stores.

Incompatibility with Harsh Environments

If you are in an area where the air is polluted due to nuclear fallout, you can't simply use an
oxygen mask, even if you need to, as you will also be breathing contaminated air. The only
solution in this situation is to have a CBRN-sealed environment or shelter where an oxygen
mask can be administered.

Lastly, and perhaps the most important point, a substantial amount of training, education, and
practice is needed to administer oxygen mask treatment. It's not just something you can read an
article about and know how to do; you need, if not a degree in medicine, at least some type of
course or certification.

Administration of an oxygen mask without proper knowledge can cause more harm than good
and should be reserved for trained medical personnel and first responder healthcare units. The
best you can do to avoid needing oxygen treatment (due to air pollution) in an SHTF
environment is to have a proper gas mask and filters.

Gas Mask Alternatives for Civilians

(Image of an MB-90 Powered Air Purifying Respirator courtesy of MIRA Safety)

In the best case, during a CBRN situation, you should ideally have access to a gas mask like
the CM-8M Full-Face Respirator alongside an ample amount of filters. If, however, you don't
have access to a high-quality gas mask, you should still aim to have some level of protection.

Alternative Respiratory Protection Solutions:

Reusable Respirators and N95 Masks - Unlike gas masks, which provide comprehensive
protection against a wide range of hazards, reusable respirators and N95 masks focus primarily
on filtering out airborne particles.

Powered Air-Purifying Respirators (PAPRs) - If you work in the healthcare, industrial, or
hazardous environment industry, you might have access to PARPs. These devices utilize a
battery-powered fan to draw air through a filter and deliver clean, filtered air to the wearer.

Surplus Military Gear - This one's a bit tricky, as you have to ensure that the rubber base still
maintains its integrity and seal. While it's best to have a modern respirator, if, for whatever
reason, your only option is a Cold War-era respirator, then it's better than nothing.

Safety tip: Never use vintage or old legacy filters and masks, as they might have previously
trapped harmful chemicals or contain asbestos.

Considerations for Selecting Alternative Masks:

If you are in an emergency situation, comfort and fit become luxuries. However, one thing to
consider is how a respirator impacts your visibility and ergonomics, especially if you need to
shoulder a rifle or aim through a scope.

The only thing to remember here is that if you are right-handed and your gas mask offers
ambidextrous canister mounting spots, use it appropriately.

Emergency Preparedness with Respirators

(Image courtesy of MIRA Safety)

When it comes to being prepared, having the correct equipment is only half the battle. Also,
knowing how to store, maintain, and preserve your gear will ensure its longevity and operational

Just like any device, tool, or equipment, gas masks are prone to failure if misused. You can read
more about tactical beards and gas masks in our article.

Let's briefly go over the main points in keeping your gear ready for use at any time:

Storage and Accessibility Challenges in Emergency Kits

The first point is to always include a gas mask and extra filters in all your emergency kits. It
might seem like obvious advice, but it makes no sense to have the gas mask in your home
bug-out bag but not in your vehicle in case you get caught in an emergency circumstance while

Don't have a gas mask just for yourself. Up your preparedness level and have kits ready for
your family, especially children and infants (as regular gas masks won't fit them).

Specialized respirators for infants, like the CM-3M CBRN Child Escape Respirator, are
specifically built to protect babies and children from CBRN threats.

Importance of Oxygen Masks in First Aid Kits

If you are a healthcare worker, having extra oxygen masks ready in your kit is never a bad idea,
especially if the ones in the ambulance or hospital get damaged or take time to replace.

For civilians, unless you are certified to use and administer such oxygen treatment, it's best to
focus on having the other available respiratory equipment.

Integration with Disaster Preparedness Plans

(Image courtesy of MIRA Safety)

Utilize simulated drills where you train to rapidly access and deploy your equipment to yourself
first and then to your family and relatives in the disaster vicinity.

Training and Familiarization

If you have already taught yourself the basics of proper gas mask usage, deployment, and
maintenance, share this knowledge with your friends and family (who are part of your disaster
preparedness plan).

Final thoughts

We hope that this educational article has helped you better understand the uses of oxygen
masks, gas masks, and SCBA gear.

By knowing which types of events and scenarios require these masks, you will avoid making
crucial mistakes.

Remember that whether facing a natural disaster, pandemic, or other emergencies, having
access to reliable respiratory equipment can make a significant difference in mitigating risks and
ensuring survival.

Frequently Asked Questions

What distinguishes oxygen masks from gas masks?
How do non-rebreather masks ensure the delivery of high concentrations of oxygen?
Can oxygen masks be used outside of healthcare contexts?