What Is the Connection between Hypoxia and COPD?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: Shereen Skola
  • Last Modified Date: 14 October 2016
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Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disorder (COPD) can cause hypoxia, where the body does not get enough oxygen to meet the needs of all its organs and tissues. This is a known complication of the condition that may be addressed in a variety of ways as part of patient treatment. Some options for managing hypoxia can include administering oxygen, providing mechanical ventilation, or changing the patient’s position for sleep. Patients may also be regularly evaluated for signs that they are experiencing low oxygen levels.

In people with COPD, a combination of emphysema and chronic bronchitis limits the function of the airways. This condition is usually associated with smoking, although not always, and it is progressive in nature. Over time, the patient’s lung function will decline, making it more and more difficult to breathe. Heavy fits of coughing are commonly associated with COPD and patients may develop painful airway inflammation. Hypoxia and COPD are commonly seen together because the patient doesn’t get enough air.

This can be a particular concern at night. Patients may notice they have headaches or feel sluggish when they wake up, which is a result of not getting enough oxygen overnight. If a doctor suspects sleep-related hypoxia and COPD, the patient may need to wear an oxygen mask at night. Masks supply oxygen to the patient to limit hypoxic symptoms in the morning and prevent long-term damage.


As a patient’s condition grows worse, the hypoxia and COPD connection can become a bigger problem. The patient may become short of breath during relatively brief physical activity and can experience symptoms like bluing and chilling of the extremities. Organ damage can also be a potential concern, especially in the brain, which is highly sensitive to episodes of reduced oxygen supply. Managing hypoxia and COPD is critical for quality of life and comfort in the patient.

Regular monitoring may include lung function tests to see how well the patient is breathing as well as oxygen saturation testing. This checks for the level of oxygen in the blood to determine how much is in circulation. When it drops, this indicates that the patient is not getting enough oxygen, and may be subject to complications.

Eventually, the airway inflammation and damage associated with COPD can become so severe that the patient is no longer able to breathe independently. Mechanical ventilation may be offered as an option to help the patient breathe. Long-term ventilation comes with significant risks, like infection in the airway, but patients may view these as acceptable to extend their lives.


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