Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) causes breathing difficulty. COPD is a group of lung conditions that includes chronic bronchitis and emphysema. Both conditions are characterized by restriction of airflow. The inability to get enough oxygen to the lungs raises your risk for developing hypoxia. Hypoxia is a condition marked by an inadequate oxygen supply to the cells and tissues of the body. It can lead to a number of serious, sometimes life-threatening, complications.
Read about the signs and symptoms of hypoxia, and learn how to manage the condition before it leads to dangerous problems.
The Cleveland Clinic defines hypoxia as “insufficient oxygen in the tissues, even though blood flow is adequate.” Oxygen plays many roles in body maintenance, but the only way to obtain it is through your lungs. COPD restricts the flow of oxygen. COPD can be a result of inflammation and swelling of the airways in chronic bronchitis. It can also involve destruction of lung tissue (alveoli) in emphysema.
Signs and symptoms of hypoxia may include:
- shortness of breath while resting
- waking up out of breath
- severe shortness of breath after physical activity
- feelings of choking
- frequent cough
- bluish discoloration of the skin
Hypoxia can also lead to another related condition called hypercapnia. This occurs when the lungs retain too much carbon dioxide due to breathing difficulty. When you can’t breathe in properly, it’s likely you won’t be able to breathe out as you should. This may elevate your carbon dioxide levels, which can be deadly. If you have difficulty breathing and hypercapnia, you will need to exhale with more force than normal.
Though COPD hypoxia makes breathing difficult, it affects more than just the lungs. When you can’t breathe in enough oxygen, your blood is deprived of a vital component. Oxygen is essential to carrying out basic body functions. For example, hypoxia can have serious effects on your heart and brain health.
COPD hypoxia can lead to a condition called cerebral hypoxia. This type of hypoxia occurs when the brain lacks oxygen even though it’s getting enough blood. If you experience cerebral hypoxia, your brain cells can start dying within five minutes, according to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke.
Untreated 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 (abnormal increase in number of red blood cells)
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 consists of 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 has to do. It can also decrease hypercapnia. Before prescribing oxygen, your doctor will run tests to measure your blood oxygen levels.
Oxygen therapy most commonly uses compressed oxygen. This type comes as gas in a tank for storage. A meter helps monitor the amount of oxygen you breathe in. The oxygen moves through a tube from the device and enters your body through nasal tubes, a facemask, or a tube inserted into your windpipe.
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 pre-filled oxygen containers. Concentrators are useful for people who need oxygen therapy all of the time. However, concentrators need an electric supply to work, so they may not be as versatile as compressed 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’s generally more expensive, according to the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. It can also evaporate, so the supply may not last as long as other forms.
In addition to oxygen treatments, to treat hypoxia you may also need:
- blood pressure medication
- heart medication
- an inhaler
- bronchodilators to relax airways
- steroids for airway inflammation
Aside from medical treatments, it’s important to stay away from environmental triggers, including:
- secondhand smoke
- air pollution
- chemicals or dust in the air
COPD can’t be cured, so it’s important to treat the condition properly to prevent complications. Respiratory failure, a possible complication, is the most common cause of COPD death.
Treating low oxygen can literally help you breathe easier and allow you to perform everyday tasks. Oxygen therapy may even help you sleep better at night. If you have COPD hypoxia, you will need lifelong treatment to prevent complications of oxygen deprivation.