Do I Need Oxygen Therapy for COPD?

Medically Reviewed by Paul Boyce, MD on November 04, 2023
4 min read

When you have chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder, it becomes harder to breathe. The big question for you and your doctor: Is it so hard to breathe that you need oxygen therapy?

This treatment gives you extra oxygen so that breathing is easier and you stay more active. Even if you don’t need the therapy now, you may need it later.

When you have COPD, your lungs take in and let out less air than they once did. This is because the tiny air sacs in your lungs have become damaged or destroyed.

You can also have COPD when the walls of your airways are inflamed or if your airways start making more mucus so that they get clogged.

There is no cure, but there are treatments.

It’s a way to get more oxygen into your lungs. You might hear your doctor or nurse call it “supplemental oxygen.”

When you go on oxygen therapy, there are several ways that supplemental oxygen may be supplied:

Tubes: You'll likely start with what’s called a nasal cannula. This is a device that includes two small tubes that fit in your nostrils and a longer air tube attached to an oxygen tank. This is the most common oxygen therapy approach.

Facemask: A facemask that covers the nose and mouth is for people who need much more oxygen or have trouble using the nasal tubes.

Surgery: For very serious cases, a surgeon creates a hole in the windpipe (trachea). A tube then runs from the oxygen tank through a small hole in your neck and into your windpipe. This is called transtracheal therapy.

The tanks can be small enough to carry with you or wheel around. There are also larger tanks that you can use at home.

If you’re on oxygen therapy, you arrange to have the tanks delivered to your home. They work by filtering other gasses, so you breathe in only oxygen.

You can also get oxygen therapy at a hospital.

When you get extra oxygen into your system, it can help you have fewer bouts of being breathless. You may find yourself sleeping better. It can also:

  • Boost your energy and ability to exercise
  • Help you focus better on tasks
  • Improve your mood
  • Improve sex
  • Lower your chance of heart failure (when your heart doesn’t pump enough blood to your body)
  • Perhaps prolong your life

The biggest concern with oxygen therapy is the chance of fire. If you’re on therapy at home or you take a portable tank outside:

  • Stay at least 5 feet from an open flame.
  • Don’t smoke or be near a smoker.
  • Try not to take your oxygen tank into a confined space.

There are also some side effects when you get oxygen therapy:

  • The skin around the facemask or nasal cannula can get irritated.
  • The inside of your nose might become dry.
  • You may get nosebleeds once in a while.
  • In the morning, you may wake up tired or with a headache.

In some cases, you can avoid these side effects by adjusting the amount of oxygen you get. Fewer therapy sessions may help, but check with your doctor first. The equipment may need to be changed if you’re having problems. If skin dryness is the problem, a humidifier in your room can help.

As your COPD gets worse, you may become a good candidate for oxygen therapy.

Your doctor may have you do some tests to see how well your lungs work. The tests measure how much oxygen is in your blood. Two common blood-oxygen tests are:

Arterial blood gas test: This is done like a standard blood test. Some blood is taken from your arm and oxygen levels are then checked in a lab.

Oximetry test: It’s much different. You wear a special device on your finger that shines a light through your skin. The amount of light absorbed by the red blood cells that carry oxygen indicates how much oxygen is in your blood.

If the tests show that you don’t have healthy oxygen levels in your blood, you may be put on therapy. Sometimes, it’s just a temporary solution. You might have a bout of COPD or an infection that makes your breathing worse. You may need the therapy only while you sleep, only while you’re being active, or only while you have the infection.

If your case is more advanced, you might need oxygen therapy 24 hours a day. Your doctor will write you a prescription that includes how many hours a day you should get supplemental oxygen. The prescription will also include the amount you should breathe in from your tank.

COPD is a progressive disease. That means it usually gets worse over time. If you smoke, try to stop so you can get the most out of your therapy. Stopping smoking can slow the progression of COPD.

Oxygen therapy can at least reduce breathlessness. It can also restore some of your quality of life. If you feel that your breathing is getting better, tell your doctor. You may be able to reduce the time you spend on therapy.

Don’t stop therapy or make changes on your own without first talking with your doctor. If your oxygen levels get too low or too high, you could have some serious health problems. Too little oxygen can harm your heart and brain. Too much can cause your breathing to become dangerously slow.

If managed well, oxygen therapy can ease your breathing. If you’re willing to travel with a small oxygen tank, it can allow you to do more and live more normally, even with a serious lung disease.