How Safe Are Your Blood Oxygen Saturation Levels?

If you are diagnosed anything other than mild COPD I always advocate buying an oximeter to check blood oxygen levels, more so when active. An oximeter is attached to the end of a finger, can be brought for very few dollars, and is worth its weight in gold. If you use oxygen, an oximeter is essential. When taking a reading you should also do other than what I did at one time, and not ignore low readings.

Blood oxygen levels are often fine resting

When not suffering from an exacerbation mine can be as high as 92% when sitting here at my computer typing. But rise and walk to another part of my home, or take part in any activity without oxygen and my levels may well fall into the low 80’s, sometimes to 79%. Saturation levels that low is dangerous.

I started using an oximeter four years ago as I wanted to know how low my blood saturation levels fell. I was often breathless and soon became aware my oximeter often showed 84% when exercising. I felt I was helping myself stay fitter and foolishly chose to ignore the reading – not realizing the harm I was doing. I loved country walks. Where I live we have great footpaths so stupid me chose to take a short walk even though I had to stop to regain my breath after very few yards.

The result was I often stopped to hang my body over fences, gates or anything I could grab hold of as I tried to regain breath. I had no idea what my saturation levels were as I was not carrying my oximeter but a guess is in the 70’s. My heart rate was very high, in the 100’s. I was foolish but not having a heart attack made that my lucky day.

I had ignored everything I knew

The reward was my body kicked back – hard. I felt not only ill but like I was dying. I could hardly move. Lay on my bed gasping while having a dreadful foreboding that I was in my very last days. My saturation levels had become permanently low. It seemed to me my instinct was right – I was dying. Because I had ignored everything I knew about COPD and what was true.

I told an oxygen assessment nurse what was happening. Managing to get a fast referral for an assessment, I was soon at the local hospital. I did the walk test in a hospital corridor with an oximeter attached to a finger. I was stopped after a few steps, and given oxygen and a cannula with two liters a minute flowing. Another short distance and I was ordered to sit and rest while levels rose. The oxygen then increased to 4 liters. Wow that felt different.

I began to feel like myself again

That was more than three years ago. Since that day I have used 4 lpm mobility oxygen. At times of exacerbation sometimes 2 lpm resting also. Now I no longer feel like I am dying; I do not get as out of breath doing light exercise as I used to. But most of all, my oxygen saturation levels are kept good. I don’t often get ill anymore and know my vital organs, including my heart, is safer.

Looking back to how I felt before I was prescribed oxygen and them awful days after my foolishness. If you have ever wondered how a fish might feel when it is taken out of water – that, I imagine, is how I felt when I was very low on oxygen.

We all need oxygen to live

O2 is what keeps our vital organs healthy. Some organs need lots of oxygen to work well, others less. But if your blood is low in this most vital of gases your heart will beat very much faster to try to get more O2 into your bloodstream to give your organs what is needed. In many cases a no-win situation develops as the lungs are not capable of getting enough oxygen into the bloodstream as the heart continues its rapid beating.

I suffered some small but not life threatening damage to the right side of my heart as some stretching was caused. I also now have an irregular heartbeat, AF, as a result. We are given oxygen to keep our organs, including the heart, healthy. Not because we get breathless. While the body will adapt to less oxygen there is limits due to the vital organs needing a good supply to work. There comes a point when our bodies can adapt no more.

I lead a good life with oxygen

Organ or heart failure becomes a real possibility without prescribed oxygen. I know of more than one who has died after being prescribed oxygen for mobility. Then refusing to use it out of false pride. If you are offered oxygen, take it with open hands. Embrace it because you will have been given a new lease of life.

Without oxygen I would be able to do little, and probably not be alive today to write this article. Instead, I lead a good life. Yes I do use a mobility scooter to get around as walking is hard and very slow when we become breathless. Using a scooter leaves me with more energy to attend many venues, and to enjoy my hobby, photography, and family.

Not all those with COPD will be prescribed oxygen. Some are CO2 retainers, and it would be dangerous to use supplementary oxygen if you are a retainer. If you are a retainer all will be explained at an assessment. Some get very breathless even though blood oxygen levels are good. But if your oxygen level is 88 or below you will without doubt be prescribed oxygen as to stay at such low levels almost certainly will cause harm. The aim here in the UK is to keep saturation levels at around 92% as a low. But be aware. Different countries have vastly different ideas on what levels is needed and what is not.

Most of all, be aware

If you notice your blood oxygen level is 88% or below get in contact with your medic as soon as possible and ask if you need oxygen.

Until I write again smile because then the world smiles with you. But most of all: Breathe Easy.

This article represents the opinions, thoughts, and experiences of the author; none of this content has been paid for by any advertiser. The team does not recommend or endorse any products or treatments discussed herein. Learn more about how we maintain editorial integrity here.


View Comments (17)
  • alynnstrause
    6 months ago

    I came across this thread while searching the web for forums about “normal” SPO2 levels while resting and while light to moderate exercise.

    I have not been diagnosed with COPD but both of my parents have.

    I’m currently 30years young. 2.5 years ago I was placed in ICU for double pneumonia and even had to be incubated. Took me 7 days to break free from the hospital and that was only on the condition I wasn’t left alone and was doing breathing exercises and resting. Almost a year later I was back in the hospital for another 7 days with pneumonia.

    This year I have been sick so many times but went to the doctors immediately after onset of symptoms. By the grace of God I haven’t had pneumonia in a year.

    Enough babbling, since my first pneumonia episode, my lungs and breathing has not returned to normal and I’m almost always breathing heavily. My husband says it sounds awful when I sleep. Light to moderate exercise or just smile household chores sometimes leave me short of breath.

    Should I be concerned with a RESTING SPO2 of 96 and BRpm of mid to upper 90’s and while walking SPO2 of 87-88% & BRpm in the 116 range?

    Idk if COPD is in any way hereditary but I can’t help but think I’ve got a high likelihood of having or developing it soon.

    Any insight and information would be very appreciated

  • Allyson.Ellis moderator
    6 months ago

    alynnstrause, thank you for reaching out! You have certainly been through a lot in the last few years with your lungs! Being hospitalized with pneumonia can be such a scary experience! We cannot offer specific medical advice or diagnostics over the internet (for your safety!) but I would encourage you to speak with your doctor about your lung function and O2 levels. S/he can give you a more accurate answer on what is normal for you, as all individuals are unique.

    As far as your question about a genetic component to COPD, while not as common as through environmental factors, COPD can indeed be genetic. Genetic COPD is referred to as Alpha-1. The alpha-1 antitrypsin protein is produced in the liver and contributes to protecting the lungs. Having a deficiency of this protein can lead to a COPD diagnosis. This article provides some good introductory information: Anyone can be tested for Alpha-1 as part of blood work ordered by your doctor.

    You mentioned your husband has noticed your breathing does not sound normal when you sleep. This would also be something to discuss with your doctor and see about the possibility of a sleep study. Depending on test results, if a CPAP or BiPap machine is indicated, it could help your breathing and sleep quality through the night. This article provides some additional information:

    Please keep us posted on what you learn after meeting with your doctor! We are always here to listen and assist! Wishing you a good day! ~Allyson ( team)

  • shirley201
    11 months ago

    Answered a question I’ve pondered about for a long time. I enjoy walking and live rurally so there is always a hill to climb and have never been able to figure out why some days a hill walk is fine and others I’m left gasping. Sounds like an oximeter might be a good idea.

  • Leon Lebowitz, BA, RRT moderator
    11 months ago

    Hi shirley201 – you’re not alone when you ponder that sort of thing. It can be a puzzle to figure out why one day your feel one way, and another day you feel differently. It seems to be characteristic of COPD. As you mentioned, you may find it helpful to monitor your saturation with an oximeter. Good luck and let us know how you’re doing. All the best, Leon (site moderator)

  • billk
    11 months ago

    when i go to sleep i am on continuous flow level 2…….might hav to increase that

  • Leon Lebowitz, BA, RRT moderator
    11 months ago

    Hi billk and thanks for answering my question. You’ll have to gauge when you need to increase the flow rate. This is something you probably should discuss with your physician before you actually do it. Please let us know how it all turns out.
    Leon (site moderator)

  • billk
    11 months ago

    when u sleep…do u use pulse or contenuous flo?

  • Leon Lebowitz, BA, RRT moderator
    11 months ago

    Hi again billk. I’m hopeful you will receive a response to your question. What about your situation. Since you described the variation in your own oxygen saturation levels, how are you using your supplemental oxygen? Do you use it at night as well?
    Wishing you well,
    Leon (site moderator)

  • billk
    11 months ago

    how come my blood ox level jumps from 83 to 97 just after eating fruit… apple sauce or peaches ???

  • mickey22
    11 months ago

    Hi Billk….eating fruit is good. Do you eat fruit in the basement or go upstairs? My Ox level is usually 93. But when I go to my doctor’s office I do breathing exercises while waiting to see him. By going up or down stairs (or any exercise for that matter) will raise you level. In my experience, I can make it up to 99 (for a few seconds). Breathing exercises really helps me and I feel great while doing them.

  • billk
    11 months ago

    wow….never had it that high….was a strugle getting 91….just now

  • Leon Lebowitz, BA, RRT moderator
    11 months ago

    Hi billk and thanks for your post. That’s a good question, too. Perhaps someone else has a answer to suggest – I do not know of a connection between eating fruit and an increase in the oxygen saturation level. Something else may be going on to improve the numbers. Eighty-three percent is considered to be a pretty low level for oxygen saturation – you may want to let your physician know of that reading. Please do check back and let us know how you’re doing. All the best, Leon (site moderator)

  • Jackie Plum
    3 years ago

    HI Derek
    I randomly came across your blogs early this evening, I have now, a few hours later, almost read all of them. Thank you for these, they are so very helpful and comforting.
    I have severe COPD, I’m not yet on oxygen, although a recent bleep test show my oxygen levels to be low, so may be tried whilst exercising at rehabilitation next week.
    I look forward to your next post.

    Jackie (Banbury, Oxfordshire)

  • Leon Lebowitz, BA, RRT moderator
    3 years ago

    Hi Jackie – we’re so pleased that you took the time to let us know the value you find in Derek’s published material. We will look forward to your continued participation in our online community. You may want to check out our Facebook page. You can find it here: We are all about all things COPD.
    All the best, Leon (site moderator)

  • Kay48
    3 years ago

    I am new to a COPD diagnosis, but am in the severe stage. Trying my best to stay positive but it is tough sometimes. Your articles all make sense to me and I am thankful to have them. Anyone else have a problem with showers? Even with a seat and handheld shower head, my oxygen levels drop into the 80’s, even 78, and I am on continuous supply at 3.

  • Derek Cummings author
    3 years ago

    Hi Kay. Glad you are finding my articles helpful. I would advice having a word with your oxygen assessor about your saturation levels when taking a shower to see if you need to have your flow adjusted upwards. Like yourself I use oxygen when showering and would not be happy with levels as low as yours fall. All the best Kay and hope you can resolve this problem soon.

  • billk
    12 months ago

    derek…..found your aricle very helpfull…going to put it to use an try around the house usind my easy to adjust cannister instead of fixed unit set to 2…..easier to adj portable unit

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