Use of high flow nasal cannula oxygen (HFNC) is increasingly popular in adult ICUs for patients with acute hypoxemic respiratory failure. This is the result of the successful long-term use of HFNC in the neonatal field and recent clinical data in adults indicating beneficial effects of HFNC over conventional facemask oxygen therapy. HFNC rapidly alleviates symptoms of respiratory distress and improves oxygenation by several mechanisms, including deadspace washout, reduction in oxygen dilution and in inspiratory nasopharyngeal resistance, a moderate positive airway pressure effect that may generate alveolar recruitment and an overall greater tolerance and comfort with the interface and the heated and humidified inspired gases. Indications of HFNC are broad, encompassing most if not all causes of acute hypoxemic respiratory failure. HFNC can also provide oxygen during invasive procedures, and be used to prevent or treat post-extubation respiratory failure. HFNC may also alleviate respiratory distress in patients at a palliative stage. Although observational studies suggest that HFNC might reduce the need for intubation in acute hypoxemic respiratory failure; such a reduction has not yet been demonstrated. Beyond this potential additional effect on outcome, the evidence already published argues in favor of the large use of HFNC as first line therapy for acute respiratory failure.