Oxygen Therapy for COPD

Quincy AdamCOPD Treatments

woman with oxygen supplement
The air we breathe contains approximately 21 percent oxygen. For anyone with normal lung function, that’s enough to oxygenate the body and maintain health.

But if you or a loved one are among the roughly 12 million adults in the United States diagnosed with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD),1 it becomes progressively difficult to draw enough oxygen from the air to satisfy your blood and body tissues. You may need supplemental oxygen.

Oxygen therapy for COPD can help increase the amount of oxygen that flows into the lungs and through the blood. Use of this therapy varies by patient and stage of the disease. For example, some people may only need supplemental oxygen when they are sleeping or performing certain physical activities. Others may need it all the time, most typically when their COPD has progressed to Stage 4.

The advantage of oxygen therapy is that it may help you breathe easier, draw more oxygen into your lungs and bloodstream, improve quality of life and may even extend life.

Oxygen Therapy for COPD Testing

Because oxygen therapy for COPD requires a medical prescription, your doctor will need to perform tests to determine if you meet certain guidelines and criteria. Tests and consultation also help your doctor to set your optimal oxygen flow rates. There are two basic tests used to measure the levels of oxygen in the blood:

  • The Arterial Blood Gas test (ABG measures oxygen, carbon dioxide (CO2) and acid levels in the blood. It’s a simple blood test using blood taken from an artery. It measures the oxygen used and CO2 produced after blood has moved through a person’s lungs and tissues.
  • Oximetry measures oxygen saturation. This test is typically performed by clipping a small pulse oximeter to your fingertip and doing the six-minute walk test. The oximeter is noninvasive. It simply shines light through the fingertip to measure how much light is absorbed in the hemoglobin, the part of the red blood cells that carry oxygen, measuring the proportion of oxygenated hemoglobin in the blood.

The science behind these tests helps your healthcare providers use the readings of oxygen levels in the blood to determine first if supplemental oxygen is advised. And if so, they need to know how efficiently your body is dissolving oxygen and moving it from your lungs to your blood. The two key measurements they want to know are how much oxygen is required to raise:

  • Arterial partial pressure of oxygen (PaO2) to between 60 and 65 millimeters of mercury (mmHg) and
  • Arterial oxygen saturation (SaO2) to between 90 percent and 92 percent. 2

Oxygen Therapy Uses and Delivery Systems

The key to oxygen therapy is always to use it as prescribed. Short-term use is to relieve shortness of breath. Long-term oxygen therapy for the COPD patient should be used with few interruptions for 15 hours a day. When prescribed, use it. Don’t let social events and activities discourage use. It is felt that the best results come from regular use day and night.

For patient convenience, there are many devices on the market that are portable and make going about daily activities easier. Also, because supplemental oxygen can help you or a loved one during air travel, portable devices are usually allowed onboard. But it is a good idea to check with the airline and make plans in advance.

There are different types of delivery devices available. All have pros and cons, which should be discussed with your healthcare providers. There are three types of devices:

  • Oxygen-gas cylinder—compressed oxygen stored in a tank or cylinder
  • Liquid-oxygen device—oxygen in liquid form and refilled from reservoir kept in the home
  • Oxygen concentrator—electrical device that concentrates the oxygen in the air

While oxygen therapy poses few risks for COPD patients, it is important to know and always remember that oxygen is a fire hazard. Always follow safety rules: Don’t use supplemental oxygen while smoking or around open flames.

Oxygen Therapy for COPD is Well Received

If you are considered a suitable candidate for oxygen therapy and your healthcare professionals prescribe treatment, use as directed. This is an effective treatment with relatively mild side effects—most significantly a reduced sense of taste and smell.

Oxygen therapy may improve sleep for COPD patients, increase mental alertness and increase stamina…because of the increased levels of oxygen in the bloodstream and reaching body tissues. Unfortunately, it will not reverse COPD. But studies suggest that patients who use oxygen therapy for 15 or more hours a day may increase their survival rates.3

1 NIH, Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD), https://report.nih.gov/nihfactsheets/ViewFactSheet.aspx?csid=77, Accessed American Thoracic Society, “Long Term Oxygen Therapy,” http://www.thoracic.org/professionals/clinical-resources/copd-guidelines/for-health-professionals/management-of-stable-copd/long-term-oxygen-therapy/home-oxygen-therapy.php (Accessed 3/25/15).

James K. Stoller, MD, MS, FCCP, et al, “Oxygen Therapy for Patients with COPD,” Chest, view online at National Center for Biotechnology Information/NIH website http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2897694/ (July 2010).