What You Need to Know About Oxygen Therapy for COPD

Quincy AdamCOPD Treatments

Oxygen tube in the patient's nose

If you or a loved one are among the roughly 12 million people diagnosed with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)1, your doctor may be recommending that you add oxygen therapy to your treatment. COPD oxygen therapy is used to ease your breathing and increase the amount of oxygen that reaches your bloodstream.

Oxygen therapy is a common treatment for COPD in the ‘Severe’ and ‘Very Severe’ stages. Oxygen is essential to life. It may make breathing easier, but it is also used to reduce hypoxemia (low levels of oxygen in blood) and hypoxia (low levels of oxygen in body tissues).

The air we breathe is roughly 21 percent oxygen, and that’s enough for anyone with normal lung function. But if you have lung damage or constricted or thickened air passageways due to COPD, and experience severe shortness of breath, you may no longer be able to draw enough oxygen from the air. For this reason, you and your doctor may be discussing the need to supplement your oxygen intake.

Here are a few things you should know about COPD oxygen therapy:

Benefits of COPD Oxygen Therapy

Oxygen therapy provides the following benefits2:

Decreased Shortness of Breath

By Stages 3 and 4 as 3, breathing exercises alone may not be able to help you ease breathlessness.

Increased Energy

By delivering more oxygen to lungs, blood and tissues, you may feel less tired and have the energy and endurance for exercise. In the early stages of supplemental oxygen therapy, you may only need oxygen during exercise.

More Restful Sleep

Some COPD patients experience breathlessness while they sleep. If you have this problem, you may only need oxygen therapy while you sleep. Your doctor will determine the right time for you to use supplemental oxygen.

Longer Survival

As breathing becomes more difficult with COPD, many patients are at greater risk for complications, including pulmonary hypertension (high blood pressure), arrhythmia (irregular heart rhythm) or myocardial ischemia (caused by lack of oxygen to heart). Oxygen therapy can supplement oxygen levels throughout the body, may reduce the risk of serious health problems and

Better Quality of Life

With portable supplemental oxygen therapy, your COPD doesn’t have to slow you down as much. Portable delivery systems, whether small cylinder or oxygen concentrator, are able to go everywhere you go. If your doctor wants you to receive uninterrupted oxygen therapy for fifteen hours a day, don’t leave your oxygen at home. Take it with you. You can even fly with supplemental oxygen. You should, however, talk with your doctor first and check with your airline in advance in case there are rules and requirements you need to follow.

Symptoms that May Indicate You Need Oxygen Therapy for COPD

Your doctor will decide when you need COPD oxygen therapy. Alert your healthcare provider when you notice:

  • Increasing shortness of breath
  • Wheezing
  • Changes in your breathing patterns
  • Increased mucus production
  • Your lips or fingernail beds have a blue or gray tinge

Risks Associated with COPD Oxygen Therapy

While oxygen therapy is 4, this is a prescribed treatment and all instructions and precautions must be followed:

Too Much Oxygen is Dangerous

Your doctor will prescribe the settings on your delivery system to regulate the optimal flow of supplemental oxygen. Do not adjust these on your own. If you think you have a problem or that you don’t feel you are receiving enough supplemental oxygen, call your doctor.

Potential for Burn Injury

While COPD oxygen therapy may extend your life, it must be used with caution. Oxygen will not explode or burn spontaneously, but it must not be used near an open flame or heat source.5 Here are some simple safety steps:

  • Never use supplemental oxygen while smoking or when you’re around other people who are smoking
  • Keep away from paint thinners, cleaning fluids, gasoline, aerosol sprays and other flammable fumes
  • Stay at least five to ten feet away from gas stoves, candles and other open flames and high heat sources
  • Oxygen containers may release small amounts of oxygen that can build up so store and use oxygen in a large, airy space
  • Don’t use oxygen therapy while using a hair dryer or electric blanket
  • It is mandatory to display an “Oxygen In Use” sign at the entrance to your home or apartment
  • Tell your local fire department that you have oxygen equipment in your home
  • Don’t refuel your car while using oxygen therapy
  • Don’t leave oxygen equipment or canisters sitting in an empty car, and never store equipment in the trunk

Possible Side Effects of COPD Oxygen Therapy

Alert your healthcare professional if you believe your COPD oxygen therapy is causing any side effects. If they persist, your doctor may want to change the flow rate of your oxygen or duration of use. Your doctor may also recommend using a humidifier. Follow your doctor’s instructions and watch for any of the following side effects:

  • Dry or bloody nose
  • Skin irritation from the nasal prongs or the face mask
  • Morning headaches
  • Increased fatigue

Supplemental oxygen equipment is a medical device. If your equipment is broken or doesn’t appear to be working correctly, contact your oxygen provider. Never tamper with the regulator valve. And do not lubricate any part of your oxygen equipment with oil or grease.

If you follow your doctor’s directions in the use of oxygen therapy and some simple safety precautions, you’ll likely find it enhances your health and lifestyle.


1 NIH, Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD), https://report.nih.gov/nihfactsheets/ViewFactSheet.aspx?csid=77. Accessed 7.23.16.2Deborah Leader, RN. The Benefits of Oxygen Therapy. Very Well. https://www.verywell.com/the-benefits-of-oxygen-therapy-914838. Accessed 7.23.16.

3 WebMD. COPD and Oxygen Therapy Guidelines: When Is It Necessary? http://www.webmd.com/lung/copd/guidelines-for-deciding-when-oxygen-is-needed. Accessed 7.23.26.

4 Petty TL, Neff TA, Creagh CE, Sutton FD, Nett LM, Bailey D, Fernandez E. Outpatient oxygen therapy in chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. A review of 13 years’ experience and an evaluation of modes of therapy. Arch Intern Med. 1979 Jan; 139(1):28-32. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/104679. Accessed 7.23.16.

5 ScienceDaily. Oxygen therapy in COPD patients associated with burn injury. https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2015/03/150330134600.htm?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=feed&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+sciencedaily+%28Latest+Science+News+–+ScienceDaily%29. Accessed 7.23.16.