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Oxygen Treatment for Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD)

Treatment Overview

Oxygen therapy increases the amount of oxygen that flows into your lungs and bloodstream. If your COPD is very bad and your blood oxygen levels are low, getting more oxygen can help you breathe better and live longer.

There are several ways to deliver the oxygen. They include:

  • Oxygen concentrators.
  • Oxygen-gas cylinders.
  • Liquid-oxygen devices.

You don't have to stay at home or in a hospital to use oxygen. Oxygen systems are portable. You can use them while you do your daily tasks.

Do not smoke or vape or let others smoke or vape while you are using oxygen.

Do not use oxygen near open flames, anything that may spark, or anything flammable. If you or those who care for you smoke, or if there are other risks for fire, it's important to think carefully before you decide to use oxygen therapy. Consider the risk of burns, fire, or explosion.

What To Expect

Oxygen therapy can make it easier for you to breathe and may help you live longer. When your body has more oxygen, your body systems can work better. You may be able to think more clearly, be more active, and have a better quality of life.

Why It Is Done

Oxygen may be given in a hospital if you have a rapid, sometimes sudden, increased shortness of breath (COPD exacerbation). It can also be used at home if the oxygen level in your blood is too low for long periods.

Your need for oxygen depends on your health and the results of oximetry or an arterial blood gas test.

You may need oxygen in certain situations, such as:

Long-term therapy.

Long-term oxygen therapy is used for COPD if you have very low levels of oxygen in your blood (hypoxemia). It can help you breathe better and live longer. Long-term oxygen therapy should be used for at least 15 hours a day with as few interruptions as possible.

During exercise.

For some people with COPD, blood oxygen levels drop only when they exercise or are very active. Using oxygen during exercise may help reduce shortness of breath for some people. But there are no studies that show any long-term benefits from using oxygen during exercise.

During sleep.

During sleep, breathing naturally slows down because the body doesn't need as much oxygen. Sleep-related breathing disorders are quite common in people with COPD. Many of these people will have quite low blood oxygen levels during sleep.

For air travel.

The level of oxygen in airplanes is about the same as the oxygen level at an elevation of 8000 ft (2400 m). This drop in oxygen can really affect people with COPD. If you normally use oxygen or have borderline-low oxygen levels in your blood, you may need oxygen when you fly. Traveling with oxygen usually is possible. But make sure to plan ahead before you travel.

Learn more

How Well It Works

Using oxygen for more than 15 hours a day may increase quality of life and may help people live longer when they have severe COPD and low blood levels of oxygen.footnote 1 Oxygen therapy may have good short-term and long-term effects in people who have COPD.

Risks

In most cases, there are no risks from oxygen therapy as long as you follow your doctor's instructions. But oxygen is a fire hazard, so make sure to follow safety rules. Do not smoke or vape or let others smoke or vape while you are using oxygen. Do not use oxygen near open flames, anything that may spark, or anything flammable. Make sure you are careful when you are moving around. You or someone else could trip and fall over the cords, oxygen tubing, or canisters. Avoid touching frost that can form on liquid oxygen devices. Frost can cause skin burns.

Oxygen is usually prescribed to raise the saturations to between 90% to 92%. Higher flow rates usually don't help. They can even be dangerous.

References

Citations

  1. Global Initiative for Chronic Obstructive Lung Disease (2021). Global strategy for the diagnosis, management, and prevention of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease: 2020 GOLD Science Committee report on COVID-19 and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine, 203(1): 24–36. DOI: 10.1164/rccm.202009-3533SO. Accessed November 30, 2020.

Credits

Current as of: July 6, 2021

Author: Healthwise Staff
Medical Review:
E. Gregory Thompson MD - Internal Medicine
Kathleen Romito MD - Family Medicine
Adam Husney MD - Family Medicine
Hasmeena Kathuria MD - Pulmonology, Critical Care Medicine, Sleep Medicine