Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) causes difficulty breathing. COPD is a group of lung conditions that includes chronic bronchitis, emphysema, and others. Restricted airflow characterizes all these conditions. The inability to get enough oxygen into the lungs raises your risk for developing hypoxia.

Hypoxia is a condition where not enough oxygen makes it to the cells and tissues that make up your body. This can happen even though your blood flow is normal. It can lead to many serious, sometimes life-threatening complications. If you know what to look for you can manage the condition before it leads to dangerous complications.

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. And it causes a restricted flow of oxygen in your body.

Symptoms of hypoxia often include:

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

COPD is a chronic condition so you may experience any of these symptoms on an ongoing basis, or on and off. If you experience any of these symptoms, it’s considered a medical emergency. You should call 911 or go to an emergency room if you experience a change from your baseline, or if these symptoms worsen, especially if associated with chest pain, fever, fatigue, or confusion.

COPD hypoxia makes breathing difficult, and 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.

COPD hypoxia can lead to a condition called cerebral hypoxia. This type of hypoxia occurs when the brain lacks oxygen. This happens even though your brain is 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.

To lower the risk of respiratory failure, which can lead to cerebral hypoxia, you should seek immediate medical attention and call 911 or local emergency services for any of the following conditions:

  • new or changing chest pain
  • rescue medications not improving symptoms
  • fever
  • worsening fatigue or excessive sleepiness
  • loss of consciousness

Untreated chronic COPD hypoxia may also lead to:

  • depression and other mood disorders
  • fatigue
  • headache
  • confusion
  • high blood pressure, or 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

Hypoxia can also lead to another related 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 blood stream which can be deadly.

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 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 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 therapy uses compressed oxygen. This type comes as gas in a tank for storage. A meter helps watch the amount of oxygen you breathe in. The oxygen moves through a tube from the device. Then it 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 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. These may come from other causes that include:

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

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

  • smoking
  • secondhand smoke
  • air pollution
  • chemicals or dust in the air

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

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