Oxygen Therapy for COPD: Why & When It Is Needed

Health Professional

COPD is a progressive, chronic illness. That means that the person who has it will notice that their lung function slowly worsens over the months and years after their diagnosis. Depending on how timely that diagnosis is, the treatment plan may or may not be intensive.

COPD can be treated with lifestyle changes like quitting smoking and better balancing activity and rest. Or, it may require medication, in the form of bronchodilators, steroids, and oxygen. In this post, I'll introduce the idea of oxygen therapy.

Our bodies need oxygen to function effectively. The cells use oxygen to produce energy and perform many other functions. But when you have COPD, the lungs are no longer able to exchange oxygen and the waste substance of carbon dioxide effectively. The right amounts of oxygen no longer get into your blood.

Doctors can tell when this is happening to you by either using a pulse oximeter device or drawing blood for an arterial blood gas (ABGs). Pulse ox is the most common method used these days. If you've never had one done, it's a clip-type device that clips on a finger tip and delivers the oxygen concentration in your blood within seconds. In any event, if your oxygen level is less than 88%, there's a good chance your doctor will suggest that you go on supplemental oxygen, at least part of the time.

The Benefits of Supplemental Oxygen

Oxygen, as states, is a basic human need we must have to survive. A person with COPD who starts on supplemental oxygen is going to immediately feel better. It'll help you sleep better and you'll feel happier and less anxious. You'll have greater activity endurance and be more mentally alert. In people with severe COPD, oxygen can also help prevent related heart failure.

How Much/How Often?

When you and your doctor decide supplemental oxygen is needed, then you'll get a prescription that will be filled by a medical supplies company or a company that specializes in oxygen therapy. The prescription will state how much oxygen you are to use and how often. It will also tell how it will be delivered to you, either by mask or by nasal cannula. It's important to follow this prescription exactly. Too much oxygen can be just as harmful as too little.

Oxygen amounts are referred to by a flow rate, that is how much oxygen in liters flows through the tubing into your body per minute. Most people will start out at a flow rate of 1 to 2 liters per minute (LPM). As COPD progresses, that flow rate might increase to 3 to 6 LPM. Your doctor may also say that you can temporarily increase the flow rate during periods of activity, such as when dressing or walking any distance.

The other part of the prescription is how often you are to use your oxygen. Usually it is one of two designations:

  • As needed (PRN), OR
  • Continuous

It's also possible your doctor might prescribe it only for certain hours, such as when you are sleeping. The decision as to how often to use supplemental oxygen will be based on your overall condition, when you feel most short of breath and how you respond to the therapy. In all likelihood, you will find that your need for oxygen therapy increases over time as your COPD progresses.

This sharepost is part of an ongoing series. Future posts in the series will focus on how to use oxygen safely, the different types of oxygen, and traveling with oxygen.