Does Everyone With COPD Need Oxygen?

A fellow caregiver asked...

Does everyone with COPD need oxygen?

Expert Answer

Dr. Leslie Kernisan is the author of a popular blog and podcast at She is also a clinical instructor in the University of California, San Francisco, Division of Geriatrics.

No. Oxygen therapy has only been proven to be helpful to those people with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) who have advanced-stage disease and have low levels of oxygen in the blood.

Medicare and other insurance companies usually require proof of at least one of two conditions:

  • The person's oxygen saturation (the percent of oxygen in the blood) is less than 88 percent. This can be measured by an oximeter, a device that looks like a clip placed on the finger or toe.
  • The oxygen level on an ABG (arterial blood gas) measurement, which is a type of blood test, is less than 55 millimeters of mercury (mmHg).

ABG measurements are considered more accurate than external oxygen saturation measurements.

Some people with COPD only develop low oxygen levels during exercise or sometimes during sleep. In such cases, oxygen can be prescribed for use just during those particular situations. COPD patients with right-sided heart failure, or with particularly high red blood cell counts, may also benefit from oxygen therapy.

A doctor must prescribe oxygen and specify the flow rate needed, and he or she should be able to point you toward medical equipment companies that supply the oxygen.

People using oxygen should never smoke, as oxygen is extremely flammable.