COPD and hypoxia

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is a group of lung conditions that includes chronic bronchitis and emphysema. Restricted airflow characterizes all these conditions, and COPD causes difficulty when breathing.

The inability to get enough oxygen into the lung raises the risk for developing hypoxia. Hypoxia is a condition where not enough oxygen makes it to the cells and tissues in the body. This can happen even though blood flow is normal.

Hypoxia can lead to many serious, sometimes life-threatening complications. However, if you know what to look for you can manage the condition before it leads to dangerous complications.
Symptoms of hypoxia

Oxygen plays an important part in your body’s cells and tissues. The only way for your body to get oxygen is through your lungs.

COPD results in inflammation and swelling of your airways. It also causes destruction of the lung tissue called alveoli. COPD causes a restricted flow of oxygen in your body as well.

Symptoms of hypoxia often include:

shortness of breath while resting
severe shortness of breath after physical activity
decreased tolerance to physical activity
waking up out of breath
feelings of choking
frequent cough
bluish discoloration of the skin

COPD is a chronic condition, so you may experience any of these symptoms on an ongoing basis. If you experience any of these symptoms, it’s considered a medical emergency.

You should call 911 or your local emergency services, or go to an emergency room, if you experience a change from your baseline or if your symptoms worsen. This is especially important if the symptoms are associated with chest pain, fever, fatigue, or confusion.

COPD hypoxia makes breathing difficult, and it affects more than just the lungs.

When you can’t breathe in enough oxygen, your blood is deprived of this vital component. Oxygen is necessary for your body to be able to carry out basic functions. For example, hypoxia can have serious effects on your heart and brain health.

Hypoxia can also lead to a condition called hypercapnia. This occurs when the lungs retain too much carbon dioxide due to breathing difficulties.

When you can’t breathe in, it’s likely you won’t be able to breathe out as you should. This may elevate your carbon dioxide levels in your bloodstream, which can be deadly. An imbalance of oxygen and carbon dioxide in your body is more likely as COPD progresses.
Other complications

Untreated chronic COPD hypoxia may also lead to:

depression and other mood disorders
high blood pressure (hypertension)
pulmonary hypertension
increased heart rate
heart failure
acute respiratory failure
secondary polycythemia, which is an abnormal increase in the number of red blood cells (RBCs)

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Oxygen therapy

Reversing hypoxia involves increasing your oxygen intake. A common method for providing extra oxygen is oxygen therapy. Oxygen therapy is also called supplemental or prescribed oxygen. It involves using a mechanical device that supplies oxygen to your lungs.

Supplemental oxygen can reduce shortness of breath, increase oxygen in your blood, and ease the amount of work your heart and lungs have to do. It can also decrease hypercapnia. Before prescribing oxygen, your doctor will run tests to measure your blood oxygen levels.
Oxygen tanks

Oxygen therapy uses compressed oxygen. The compressed oxygen gas is stored in a portable tank.

The tank delivers oxygen to your body through nasal tubes, a face mask, or a tube inserted in your windpipe. A meter on the tank keeps track of the amount of oxygen you breathe in.
Oxygen concentrators

Oxygen therapy is also available in concentrator form. An oxygen concentrator takes air from the environment, filters out other gases, and stores oxygen for use. Unlike compressed oxygen, you don’t have to use prefilled oxygen containers.

Concentrators are useful for people who need oxygen therapy all the time. But concentrators need electricity to work, so they may not be as versatile as compressed oxygen.
Liquid oxygen

Another option is liquid oxygen. Liquid oxygen turns into gas when it leaves its container.

Though liquid oxygen can take up less space than compressed oxygen, it can also evaporate. This means the supply may not last as long as other forms.

Besides oxygen treatments to treat hypoxia, and your regular medications for COPD, you may also need medications to control breathing problems caused by other conditions. These medications may include:

blood pressure medications that reduce swelling
heart medications that control heart failure
heart medications that control chest pain
medications that control indigestion or gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD)
allergy medications

Aside from medical treatments, it’s important to stay away from environmental triggers that include:

secondhand smoke
air pollution
chemicals or dust in the air


COPD isn’t curable. However, it’s important to treat the condition to prevent complications. One possible complication, respiratory failure, is a common cause of COPD death.

If you have COPD hypoxia, you’ll need lifelong treatment to prevent complications of oxygen deprivation. Treating low oxygen can help you breathe easier and allow you to perform everyday tasks. Oxygen therapy may help you sleep better at night.