Is it Time for You to Start Supplemental Oxygen Therapy?

When you have COPD, the simple act of breathing becomes more difficult. Feeling breathless, having a chronic cough, and experiencing chest tightness and wheezing are all common symptoms. But even if you have all of these symptoms, you could still be getting enough oxygen into your body, at least for a time.

Importance of oxygen

Oxygen is a gas in everyday air that your body requires to work effectively. Oxygen is a building block throughout your body in even the smallest cells. It helps to provide energy to your body, assists with growing replacement cells each day, and more. In short, we need oxygen to survive.1

With COPD, your airways narrow and tighten. Eventually, some of the small air sacs at the very bottom of your lungs start to deteriorate from COPD, because of the constant level of inflammation in the airways. Over time, your body takes in less and less oxygen. In some cases, you might breathe in the oxygen, but the damaged air sacs can no longer process it correctly.

When you get to that stage, your doctor may suggest it is time to add supplemental home oxygen therapy to your treatment plan. But how will you know when you really need this extra oxygen?

Signs of low oxygen levels

Feeling breathless alone is not a sign that you are ready for supplemental oxygen, although it can be a factor. Here are some signs that the oxygen levels in your blood may be low:2

  • Worsening shortness of breath, especially at rest or while sleeping
  • Headache, especially when you wake up in the morning
  • Feeling restless
  • Dizziness
  • Breathing more rapidly
  • Mental confusion
  • Being clumsy or uncoordinated

Ways to measure oxygen levels

Symptoms are often somewhat subjective. While helpful in making a diagnosis, they may also need to be validated with scientific tests. There are 2 ways a doctor can measure your blood oxygen levels:

There are also pulmonary function tests that can further measure the effectiveness of the breaths you take in and out. A pulse oximeter is a small device that clips onto your fingertip. It uses a beam of light to measure the hemoglobin in the blood. From there, it calculates the amount of oxygen in your blood.2 The actual measurement is the percent that your blood is saturated with oxygen, compared to how much it could contain. Pulse oximeters can be used at home or in a doctor's office. They're fairly inexpensive and non-invasive. And they are considered to be quite accurate.

Your doctor can also draw blood from an artery in your arm and measure your oxygen levels that way. This is the most accurate measurement, but does require a health care professional and is somewhat invasive.

As a general rule, people whose oxygen levels remain above 88% even when exercising do not need supplemental oxygen.2 But everyone's body is slightly different, so you'll need to discuss the "cut off point" with your own health care team who is familiar with your medical history and current status.

How supplemental oxygen might help

As I mentioned above, oxygen is a basic human need that is required for survival. If your doctor determines that you're not getting enough oxygen into your body, at least sometimes, then it's a good idea to be open to the idea of supplemental oxygen.

Here are some specific ways that extra oxygen can help you feel better:3

  • It can help you feel less breathless, which can decrease your anxiety.
  • You may feel less fatigued and have more energy to stay as independent as possible.
  • It will help you sleep better and longer so that you wake feeling rested.
  • You may be more able to be active, which is key to staying healthy and maintaining your quality of life.

Oxygen may slow the progression of COPD and increase quality of life

Oxygen won't cure your COPD or reverse the lung damage you already have. But it may slow the progression of your disease, prolong your life, and improve your overall quality of life.4 And who wouldn't want that?

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