What is Hypoxia?

And Your Risk If You Have COPD

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If you have chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), you could be at risk for a sometimes dangerous condition called hypoxia. Learn about the definition of hypoxia, plus symptoms, side effects and available treatment options.

What is Hypoxia?

Hypoxia, which literally translates as decreased oxygen or a low oxygen level, is defined as having an inadequate oxygen supply to the cells and tissues of the body.

COPD patients are at risk for alveolar hypoxia, a reduced oxygen supply to the alveoli, tiny air sacs in the lungs that are responsible for the exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide.

Why Hypoxia Occurs in COPD Patients

Because breathing problems associated with COPD reduce the amount of oxygen available in the blood (hypoxemia), less oxygen is available to the cells and tissues of the body, and hypoxia occurs.

Other Causes of Hypoxia

Hypoxia does not only occur in people with COPD. It can also be caused by a number of other factors, including:

Symptoms of Hypoxia

Hypoxia is not always easy to identify. Many of the symptoms can also be caused by other conditions. However, if you have COPD and are experiencing these symptoms, talk to your doctor right away: 

  • Increased blood pressure
  • Rapid heart rate (tachycardia)
  • Lightheadedness
  • A bluish discoloration of the skin, lips and/or nail beds

Side Effects and Treatment of Hypoxia in COPD Patients

If hypoxia becomes severe, you are at risk for hypoxemia, which is an abnormally low level of oxygen. The hypoxemia related to COPD is responsible for reduced skeletal muscle function and an increased risk of death.

It also lowers exercise tolerance. Long-term oxygen therapy is one of the few treatments that has been proven to improve symptoms and prolong life expectancy in COPD patients with hypoxemia.

Alveolar hypoxia is also a contributing factor o the development of pulmonary hypertension in patients with COPD, especially in people with moderately severe COPD. the risk for pulmonary hypertension increases with disease severity.

Steps to Avoid Hypoxia

Fortunately, there are steps you can take to lower your chances of hypoxia. For example, if you have mild COPD, exercising can improve the exchange of carbon dioxide and oxygen in your lungs. To learn more about exercising with COPD, check out The Best Exercises for COPD Patients. In general, following your treatment plan and managing your COPD symptoms can help you avoid the various complications of COPD.

Check out these resources for more information about COPD complications:

5 Signs and Symptoms of a Lung Infection

A Comprehensive Guide to COPD Complications

FAQ About COPD for the Newly Diagnosed


Mcnicholas, W. (2011). Hypoxemia in patients with COPD: Cause, effects, and disease progression. International Journal of Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease COPD,6, 199-208.

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