Hypoxia in COPD: Causes, Symptoms, Treatment, Complications

Hypoxia in COPD-Overview

Hypoxia is the medical condition where patients experience low arterial oxygen supply to tissues and cells of body. In most of the cases, COPD or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease causes difficulty in breathing and increases the risk of developing hypoxia in patients. The treatment options for hypoxia in COPD is decided based on the causes and symptoms, hence it is important to understand them.

COPD is the group of lung disease that includes emphysema, chronic bronchitis and others, which are characterized by restricted airflow. When the supply of oxygen to the lungs is restricted or limited, it increases the risk of COPD patients to have hypoxia. Hypoxia in COPD can also be caused even when the flow of blood is normal in body. Such conditions can be life-threatening at times. So, it is necessary for you to know the treatment options available to treat the condition before it becomes dangerous and complicated.

Hypoxia in COPD

Causes Hypoxia in COPD

Hypoxia is the common condition in patients with COPD, as such chronic ailments affect the lungs and restrict the supply of oxygen to the tissues and cells in the body. The causes of hypoxia in COPD are that the patients are unable to breathe properly due to weak lungs and there is a limitation of oxygen supply too. Since the lung parenchyma is ruined because of COPD, the patient experiences difficulty in breathing.

Due to insufficient oxygen supply, the pulmonary capillary bed is destroyed severely and hence a mismatch between the perfusion ration of oxygen and ventilation occurs. Due to hypoxia in COPD, the patients may also experience pulmonary hypertension, muscle pain, polycythemia, neuro-cognitive dysfunction.

Some factors that contribute to the causes of hypoxia in COPD patients include:

Symptoms of Hypoxia in COPD

Oxygen plays a very important role for the body’s tissues and cells. Lung is the vital organ of your body that helps your body to get the required amount of oxygen for smooth functioning. COPD patients with hypoxia usually experience swelling and inflammation in their airways and the lung tissues (alveoli) get destroyed. Due to this, the flow of oxygen is restricted or limited in the body.

Some of symptoms of hypoxia in COPD include

  • Reduced tolerance to physical activities
  • Shortness of breath while in the state of rest
  • Waking up out of breath
  • Wheezing
  • Feeling of choking in between your sleep
  • Serious shortness of breath after any activity
  • Coughing frequently
  • Bluish discoloration of skin tone

Patients may experience any of these symptoms of hypoxia in COPD regularly, in which case, immediate medical attention is needed. These symptoms may also accompany severe chest pain, fatigue, fever, and confusion.

Complications of Hypoxia in COPD

When a person suffers from hypoxia in COPD, the breathing and ultimately the oxygenation gets affected. Oxygen is necessary for optimal functioning of the body and due to hypoxia in COPD, the brain health and heart health can be affected severely.

Cerebral Hypoxia

Hypoxia in COPD can also cause cerebral hypoxia. This type of condition occurs when the brain lacks in oxygen. In this condition the brain cells starts dying instantly and you may experience a stroke or brain hemorrhage. So, to lower the risk of developing cerebral hypoxia it is necessary to seek medical attention immediately after experiencing any signs or symptoms of hypoxia in COPD.

Some of the symptoms when you may require medical assistance include:

  • Fever
  • Rescue medication not improving symptoms
  • Loss of consciousness
  • Excessive sleepiness or worsening fatigue


Hypoxia in COPD patients can also lead to other related medical conditions like hypercapnia. This is the medical condition that usually occurs when the level of carbon dioxide is higher in lungs due to difficulty in breathing. Due to breathing difficulties, inhaling and exhaling air becomes difficult, which increases the carbon dioxide level. This is hypercapnia, in which carbon dioxide level in blood stream increases, which can prove to be fatal at times. So, it is necessary for patients with COPD to get right treatment timely to avoid hypoxia and also to reduce the chances of developing complications from hypoxia in COPD.

Treatment Options for Hypoxia in COPD

The treatment options for hypoxia in COPD depend on the cause, severity and extent of the condition, however, the mainstay of the treatment usually remains the same.

  • Oxygen Therapy for Hypoxia in COPD – The treatment options for hypoxia in COPD involve enhancing the oxygen intake through oxygen therapy. This is the most common method used as a treatment for patients with hypoxia in COPD. Oxygen therapy is also referred as prescribed or supplemental oxygen therapy and the treatment is given using mechanical devices.

Oxygen therapy is effective in reducing shortness of breathing, increasing supply of oxygen in blood stream, thus reducing the load on the heart and lungs to supply oxygen. This treatment option is also helpful in reducing the risk of developing hypercapnia. However, before administering the oxygen therapy the doctor will conduct few tests in order to gauge the level of blood oxygen.

The method makes use of compressed oxygen that is available as gas in a tank for storage. There is a meter that helps the doctors to monitor the amount of oxygen you are breathing in. There is a specialized tube through which oxygen moves from the device and enters your body through facemask or nasal tubes or through a tube that is inserted into the windpipe of your body.

  • The Liquid Oxygen Treatment for Hypoxia in COPD – Liquid oxygen is another treatment option for hypoxia in COPD. The liquid oxygen is converted into gas when it leaves the container, so it consumes less space than the compressed form of oxygen. It can also evaporate, so the supply may not last longer as compared to other forms of oxygen.
  • Medications to Treat Hypoxia in COPD – Apart from oxygen therapies mentioned above, doctors may also prescribe drugs and medications for hypoxia in COPD. The medications are offered to control the breathing issues and boost lung function to breathe in sufficient oxygen and supply to body. People suffering from allergies are treated with appropriate anti-allergic medicines, while those with bronchoconstriction are given bronchodilators in the form of medicines and inhalers.
  • Diet and Lifestyle – Another important part of treatment options for hypoxia in COPD is to control diet and maintain a healthy lifestyle to be able to live with the condition in a better way. Avoiding foods that trigger breathing difficulties or respiratory problems must be avoided. Regular exercise, walking or yoga, can be performed with medical advice depending on individual capacity. Breathing exercises help to a great extent and can be performed under supervision.

Apart from all these treatment options for hypoxia in COPD, you are required to stay away from environmental triggers like

  • Secondhand smoke
  • Smoking
  • Air pollution
  • Dust and chemicals in air

Also Read:

Pramod Kerkar, M.D., FFARCSI, DA
Pramod Kerkar, M.D., FFARCSI, DA
Written, Edited or Reviewed By: Pramod Kerkar, M.D., FFARCSI, DA Pain Assist Inc. This article does not provide medical advice. See disclaimer
Last Modified On:July 21, 2017

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