Safe Oxygen Levels: What Should My Oxygen Level Be?

Safe Oxygen Levels: What Should My Oxygen Level Be?

safe oxygen levelsIf you’re using supplemental oxygen, it’s important to understand what your oxygen levels should be and when your oxygen levels aren’t safe. Many people with COPD have oxygen levels that are below normal, even when using supplemental oxygen. At what point do your oxygen levels go from being below normal to unsafe? Let’s first explore what it means to have low blood oxygen levels.

Low Blood Oxygen Levels = Hypoxemia

When blood oxygen levels drop below normal, a condition known as hypoxemia occurs. In COPD, hypoxemia is a problem related to your breathing. Hypoxemia is determined by measuring the amount of oxygen present in a blood sample taken from an artery, or an arterial blood gas. It can also be estimated using a pulse oximeter, a small device that attaches to your finger and measures the oxygen saturation level in your blood.

Normal arterial oxygen levels as measured by an arterial blood gas range from 75 to 100 millimeters of mercury (mm Hg). According to the Mayo Clinic, values under 60 mm Hg usually indicate that a person needs supplemental oxygen. Normal oxygen saturation levels as measured by pulse oximetry range from 95% to 100 percent. Values under 90% are considered low.[1]

Blood Oxygen Levels: What’s Unsafe?

Unsafe oxygen levels are determined by your doctor but in general, you qualify for supplemental oxygen according to Medicare guidelines when your arterial blood gas is at or below 55 mm Hg and/or your pulse oximetry reading is at or below 88% under certain conditions. This doesn’t mean that a pulse oximetry reading of 90% is safe for you. Whenever blood oxygen levels drop for more than a short period of time, your organs and tissues don’t get the oxygen they need to function properly. Over time, this can lead to serious health consequences, such as pulmonary hypertension (high blood pressure in the lungs) and polycythemia (increased amount of red blood cells).[2]

Maintaining Safe Oxygen Levels

When you’re given a prescription for supplemental oxygen, your doctor should give you a safe range of oxygen saturation levels that she wants you to maintain. If you consistently fall below this range, you should notify your doctor as an adjustment may need to be made in your oxygen flow rate.

Your doctor may also give you permission to “titrate” your oxygen flow rate according to your oxygen saturation levels. For example, if your doctor determines that your safe oxygen saturation level should be 92% or above, she may advise you to increase your oxygen flow rate if your saturation drops below 92 percent. Maintaining safe oxygen levels is important for your health and well-being and if this becomes a problem for you while on supplemental oxygen, talk to your doctor as soon as possible.

Following Your Doctor’s Order

Although supplemental oxygen is beneficial to patients who need it, some patients fail to use it as prescribed. This is due to many reasons, including lack of a clear understanding of the benefits of supplemental oxygen and the reluctance to wear a nasal cannula or be tied down to an oxygen delivery source.[3] But using supplemental oxygen for more than 15 hours a day improves survival for some patients with COPD. That’s why it’s so important to follow your doctor’s orders.

Never increase or decrease your oxygen flow rate without first consulting with your doctor. Use your oxygen therapy as prescribed and never allow someone else to use your oxygen. If you’re having difficulties using your oxygen the way it’s ordered, talk to your doctor about an alternative oxygen delivery system. Sometimes switching nasal cannulas or oxygen delivery sources is all it takes to improve adherence to oxygen therapy. Finally, if you have any concerns about using supplemental oxygen, discuss them with your doctor.


[1] Mayo Clinic. Hypoxemia (low blood oxygen). December 25, 2015.

[2] Kent, B. D., Mitchell, P. D., & McNicholas, W. T. (2011). Hypoxemia in patients with COPD: cause, effects, and disease progression. International Journal of Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease6, 199–208.

[3] Katsenos, Stamatis and Constantopoulos, Stavros, H. Long-Term Oxygen Therapy in COPD: Factors Affecting and Ways of Improving Patient Compliance. Pulmonary Medicine. 2011.

By Deborah Leader RN, BSN, PHN


20 thoughts on “Safe Oxygen Levels: What Should My Oxygen Level Be?”

  1. Albert Newton says:

    I have c o p d and at the moment my stats are 85-90 and I can't move phlegm and muccus from my lungs will oxygen therapy help me get some sleep

    1. Carol Taffs says:

      I have copd, sats are between 85 -92 am I right in thinking that it should be 90 plus

    2. Cara says:

      Do you ever use mucinex or cough medicine? You know drinking hot water with some fresh sliced ginger is very therapeutic. When my mom was having cough spells I cooked up water and ginger. The coughing stopped. It needs to be fresh.

    3. D.J. Miller says:

      Your oxygen levels are too low. The oxygen level should be in the 90s…When you sleep your oxygen levels drop. When your oxygen levels drop..your body is seeking more oxygen to keep everything going within normal parameters. If you are not on an additional source of should be and definitely talk to your Doctor or Respiratory Therapist. Good Luck!

  2. Mahaley Davis says:

    Very good information. When you use supplemental oxygen, it dictates your life, adding extra time to be mobile. If your pulse oximetry is 89% after exertion, you might decide to perform the chore without an oxygen supplement. However, your words caution that continued behavior such as this is harmful, in simple words that a hurried physican sometimes doesn't emphasize enough.

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  4. Robert Pescatore says:

    My mother 's blood is turning blue on her fingers and would like to know what she can do to find out what is causing the blood to turn blue.

    1. Inogen Inogen says:

      Hi Robert, What you’re describing could be caused by a variety of conditions. One possible condition is cyanosis, where lack of oxygen causes a bluish discoloration of the skin, nail beds and/or mucous membranes. Although blood may appear blue, it is not turning blue. We recommend contacting your primary care doctor so that he or she can do a full examination.

    2. Ross Carl Booker says:

      Low oxygen levels, before my mom died she went to the doctors, and he told her that her lips were blue in color, a sign of low oxygen levels in your blood. Get some oxygen supplement soon

  5. Bonnie Brumfield says:

    I have emphysema, I play golf, I get tired, pain in my gut
    And then vomit. Why am I vomiting. I can do this shopping, and taking a shower? What gives with this.

    1. Inogen Inogen says:

      Hi Bonnie, Vomiting can be caused by a variety of reasons – something as simple as over-exerting yourself, the side effect of a new medication, or something you ate. Since we are not your primary care doctor, we recommend that you reach out to your primary care doctor so that they can evaluate you.

      Good luck Bonnie! We hope you feel better soon.

  6. Jay says:

    My ready starts out high at 95 or so but slowly falls to below 85 after 3 or 4 minutes. I have rebound congestion from overuse of over the counter nose spray so if I don't use it I fall low on the readings. What should I do? I do have COPD from smoking form 40 years but have never been to a pulmonary doctor. Is that the one you go to for oxygen? 62 years old on disability social security. Thanks Much.

    1. Inogen Inogen says:

      Hi Jay, People are generally candidates for oxygen therapy when their oxygen saturation levels are at or below 88 percent. You should report your readings to your doctor as soon as possible. Additionally, it would probably be beneficial to see a pulmonary specialist if you's never been to one and have COPD. However both types of doctors-general practitioners and pulmonary specialists- can prescribe oxygen therapy if they determine that you need it.

    2. Cara says:

      I'm not a medical professional but you should get in soon as possible. You can get a ct of your lungs and make sure you don't have hypertension. Do you elevate yourself when sleeping. Also, it sounds like you need oxygen. Or if you have sleep apnea a cpap will do help you at night. Lung openers – Good diet, fresh grapefruit juice, water, special tea, overall taking care.

    3. D.J. Miller says:

      Jay in order for you to be diagnosed with COPD you must have had testing by a Respiratory therapist, usually the DR refers you to one for Pulmonary testing…but you may go back to the one who diagnosed you…but do it soon. You need to do some deep slow breathing to get your oxygen moving and an additional source of oxygen.

  7. Dee Potter says:

    I have been diagnosed with pulmonary hypertension and COPD by echo and right heart cath. My oxygen sats remain at 98% on room air. I don't have any symptoms yet, but my reading on pulmonary hypertension is 90, so I know problems are ahead. I'm now using my C-pap every night, and my Dr. thinks this will lower the pulmonary hypertension. Will this help the COPD?

    1. Inogen Inogen says:

      Hi Dee, While there is no cure for COPD, the goal of COPD treatment is to slow disease progression, reduce symptoms, prevent COPD flare-ups and improve quality of life. The treatment your doctor has prescribed is customized to your symptoms and medical history. Please continue to work with your doctor as symptoms do change over time, and your doctor will be able to recommend the best treatment for you.

      1. D.J. Miller says:

        This is true and Very good advice…however there are a number of things one can do to help live with COPD. I have COPD and I am a Respiratory Therapist (retired). Breathing exercises are of great importance. Most people who get short of breath are breathing shallowly.You need to breath from the diaphragm. There are classes and literature that will teach you and also the use of breathing Spirometer. They work wonderfully.. NEVER EVER use Oxygen without the advise of a professional and when you ever half to have it. DO NOT change the input without asking first.

        They also have lung surgeries that take the affected part away….a sort of lung reduction (in layman terms) depending where the lung is damaged. so don't lose heart…

  8. Tina says:

    My problem is that when I can't breathe my numbers go up to 126. They don't go down.

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