Knowing Your Oxygen Levels

October 5th, 2011 | Author: COPD Coach

Dear COPD Coach,

My wife has COPD and is on oxygen 24/7. Often times she refuses to use supplemental oxygen unless she decides she needs it at a particular time. How do I tell if her oxygen is getting low?


Dear Concerned,

Having an inadequate oxygen level is dangerous, especially if it is low for a long period of time. Low oxygen levels can affect many things: short term memory and eyesight, as well as causing a lack energy and damage  to major  organs and heart muscle. People experiencing low levels will generally feel lethargic and have little energy.

Some COPD patients experience especially lower oxygen levels at night (breathing is generally slower and shallower as we sleep), and many as a result just require supplemental oxygen while sleeping. In any case, if someone is prescribed oxygen, especially for full time use, it means they need it! By not following the directions of the doctor, they may well be putting their life at risk.


Here are some signs you can look for is your wife’s oxygen level is indeed too low.

  • Shortness of breath or difficulty breathing
  • Very fatigued
  • Some mental confusion
  • Tightening of chest
  • Fingers will tingle
  • Starting to retain water (will often show up in their feet or ankles
  • More coughing than usual

Another sign to look for is Cyanosis. Cyanosis is a bluish discoloration of the skin and is often a late sign of chronic oxygen deprivation in the blood. Common places for cyanosis to appear are the lips, tongue, fingernails and earlobes.

With that said, the easiest way to determine what your oxygen levels are is to purchase and use a pulse oximeter. This is a small device that you put on your finger that will not only tell you what the oxygen saturations are but also your pulse rate. Ask your doctor or other respiratory health care professional to show you how to use and read the pulse oximeter.

While no one wants to spend their life attached to an oxygen hose, supplemental oxygen goes a long way to helping us prolong our life and remain active and healthy. It may seem to your wife as if wearing oxygen is holding her back, but it can actually give her more freedom – freedom to feel better and be more active. I would advise you to discuss oxygen use –together- with your wife and  her doctor and see if there are ways to motivate her to use the oxygen as prescribed.

Thanks for writing,

COPD Coach

Ask the Expert is aimed at providing information for individuals with COPD to take to your doctor, and is not in any way intended to be medical advice.

If you would like to submit a question to the Coaches Corner email us at We would love to hear your questions and comments. You can address your emails to any of the following: COPD Coach, Caregiver Coach, COPD Doctor or COPD RT.


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  4. Joann Myers says:

    Get a second opinion! Do not wait. Two nodules that could be cancerous need to be checked. It is your body, you have to push to get proper care. Good Luck.

  5. Betty Payne says:

    I have Copd – and just was in the hospital, for five days.
    They dio., me with Acute resp., failure, Bronch., sinus.,
    stress and anxiety. The lung specialist found two nodules
    on one lung and could not do a biop., because they are too small. On machine at night to take bad air out and put good air into my lungs. I see the lung Dr., now in one year. They want me to start pulm., care at hospital.
    I worry about cancer, my Mother died with cervical cancer, I had Uterus cancer stage 0., at 26 years old, so caught in time. My Sister died with lung cancer. I also have a mass & cyst on kidney, which I do follow ups with.
    With the copd and the lungs having nodules – I am worried.
    Could you give me some advice? I can not take the dye for cat scan – allergic to it, but the xray tech., told me they can give me somthing first before I go for Xray.
    Thank you

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