If you're experiencing shortness of breath, fatigue, or a rapid heart rate with COPD, your oxygen levels may be low.

COPD and Oxygen

Chronic pulmonary obstructive disease (COPD) can lead to a variety of symptoms including shortness of breath, fatigue, and coughing. The damage to the air sacs in the lungs can also interfere with getting air into and out of the lungs.

For people with COPD, it may be difficult to get enough oxygen into the lungs and carbon dioxide out. What may happen is oxygen levels can become low.

Signs of Low Oxygen Level

Not everyone that has COPD will develop low oxygen levels. But when oxygen levels are low, certain signs and symptoms may develop including:

  • Shortness of breath
  • Rapid heart rate
  • Fast breathing
  • Blue or gray fingernails or lips
  • Confusion

How to Get More Oxygen in the Body

There are several ways to try and improve the amount of oxygen in your lungs and delivered through your bloodstream. Consider the following:

  • Try pursed-lip breathing: Pursed-lip breathing is a technique that involves inhaling through the nose and exhaling through pursed lips for twice as long. It helps completely empty the lungs and remove the carbon dioxide. Less air trapping in the airways may allow more oxygen to get into the lungs and through the bloodstream.
  • Practice diaphragmatic breathing: Diaphragmatic or belly breathing involves breathing using your diaphragm efficiently. As you inhale, your stomach should move outward, which means your diaphragm is moving down. This allows for better lung expansion. Because you are getting a larger volume of air into the lungs, it also means more oxygen is getting into the body. 
  • Do relaxation exercises: When you are relaxed and calm, you are better able to breath deep and easy. Deep and relaxed breathing may also help you get more oxygen into the lungs. Try relaxation activities, such as guided imagery, yoga, and meditation.
  • Use supplemental oxygen: Supplemental oxygen is one option for people with COPD to get more oxygen into their body. Supplemental oxygen is delivered through various types of devices, such as a nasal cannula or oxygen mask. The device is attached to an oxygen delivery system, such as a portable concentrator. Using supplemental oxygen increases the amount of oxygen in the lungs and delivered to the organs.

Using Supplemental Oxygen for COPD

If your doctor thinks you may need supplemental oxygen, you’ll likely have a few tests to see if you qualify for home oxygen.  The tests to see if you need oxygen therapy include a six-minute walk and an arterial blood gas.

A six-minute walk involves having your oxygen level monitored while you walk for six minutes. If your oxygen level drops below a certain level during the physical exertion, your doctor may write you a prescription for home oxygen.

The other test you may have is an arterial blood gas, which involves having a blood draw. The blood test measures the amount of oxygen and carbon dioxide in your blood.

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The results of the tests may indicate that you only need to use oxygen during exercise or activity and not at rest. You may also be prescribed oxygen to use overnight while you sleep. During sleep, most people breath shallower than while they are awake. The shallow breaths result in less oxygen into the lungs.

If you qualify for oxygen therapy, your doctor will usually prescribe a specific liter flow and state whether you need oxygen continuously or only during exercise or sleep.

There are different types of oxygen delivery devices that you may use at home. The best kind of device for you may depend on your activity level, how much oxygen you need, and the insurance you have. Talk to your doctor about your lifestyle, such as how much you travel, and what type of activities you do daily. Most people that use oxygen at home have one of the following delivery systems:

  • Home oxygen concentrators
  • Portable oxygen devices
  • Liquid oxygen
  • Oxygen cylinders

Benefits of Oxygen Therapy for COPD Patients

Not everyone that has COPD will need or qualify for oxygen therapy. If you find out you do need oxygen therapy, you may have several questions. Some people that are told they need home oxygen may feel self-conscious about using oxygen or might not understand the benefits. Speak to your doctor to have concerns addressed.

Oxygen therapy can improve how you feel and your overall quality of life. The benefits of using oxygen may include:

  • Decreased shortness of breath
  • Increased exercise tolerance
  • Reduced fatigue
  • Better sleep

COPD and Oxygen Safety Tips

Oxygen can improve your well-being. But it’s vital to use it correctly and follow a few safety tips. If you are using oxygen at home, below are several things to keep in mind.

  1. Oxygen is considered a drug. You should talk to your doctor before changing your liter flow.
  2. Keep oxygen away from a heat source, anything that may spark or an open flame. Oxygen will not start a fire by itself. But it can support combustion, which means it will add fuel to the fire.
  3. Notify your local power company if you use an oxygen concentrator at home. Power companies often give priority to people using home oxygen in the event of a power outage.
  4. Consider getting a pulse oximeter. A pulse oximeter is a small device that you place on your finger to monitor the oxygen level in your body. If you use oxygen therapy, measuring your oxygen level with a pulse oximeter can help you determine if your liter flow is high enough.