Oxygen saturation (Sp0₂) is related to the circulation of oxygen in the bloodstream. Levels recorded above 95% are considered healthy and levels below 90% are problematic. Patients with conditions such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) often have low levels, which can cause shortness of breath, lethargy, tiredness, weakness, and many other serious problems. The best way to deal with chronically low oxygen saturation is through medical intervention, but there are some steps you can take yourself to improve your levels.
Method 1 of 3: Changing Breathing Patterns
Step 1. Breathe slowly and deeply
You breathe involuntarily, but you are also likely to do so ineffectively - most adults use only a third of their lung capacity to breathe. This inefficiency can cause less oxygen to enter the lungs and bloodstream, which reduces saturation. By breathing slower and deeper, you improve all of these elements.
Many adults breathe at a rate of 15 breaths per minute; reducing this rate to 10 per minute has been shown to benefit oxygen saturation
Step 2. Do breathing training for health benefits
While making a conscious effort to breathe more slowly and deeply will benefit saturation, making longer lasting adjustments to your breathing patterns will produce better results. Both healthy individuals and patients with breathing problems can increase oxygen saturation through breathing training.
- It is important to talk to medical staff about this training especially if you have a medical condition such as COPD.
- You can also take training outside the medical context, such as taking a yoga class or receiving instruction in diaphragmatic breathing (from a breathing or vocal instructor).
Step 3. Try coughing
Controlled coughing can help you clear secretions that may be obstructing your airways, which will help improve oxygen saturation. This is a common instruction after surgery to ensure the airway is working well.
Try coughing a few times to see if it helps you breathe better
Step 4. Practice breathing with pursed lips
During the day, you can temporarily increase your oxygen saturation by doing a simple pursed-lip breathing exercise. This is one of the easiest ways to get oxygen slowly and deeply into the lungs. Try the following steps:
- Inhale through your nose for two seconds.
- Pursuing your lips (as if for a kiss) and hold your breath for a moment.
- Exhale through pursed lips for approximately six seconds.
- Repeat as many times as you like.
Method 2 of 3: Using medical interventions
Step 1. Use supplemental oxygen when prescribed
If you have consistently low oxygen saturation levels due to conditions such as COPD, your doctor may decide to prescribe supplemental oxygen. This treatment involves the use of oxygen tanks, flexible tubing and a cannula that transfers oxygen through the nose. Patients who follow this regimen can be reasonably active and long-lived.
Don't resist these treatments for fear of being “stuck” to an oxygen tank and bed your whole life. Portable tanks are unobtrusive and allow you to walk around with more energy and endurance
Step 2. Learn to check oxygen saturation and supplementation regularly
Individuals with supplemental oxygen often learn to monitor their own saturation by placing a pulse oximeter on their finger, earlobe, or nose. It is a quick, easy, non-invasive and painless process.
As per your doctor's recommendations, you can adjust supplemental oxygen to compensate for low saturation readings or when doing activities such as walking or light exercise
Step 3. Take prescription drugs
If you have low saturation due to COPD or a similar condition, you will likely need to take medications in addition to using supplemental oxygen. This includes controller medications, which you will take at a regular time to improve breathing and lung function, as well as rescue medication, which should be used when you have more difficulty breathing.
- There are several types of inhaled corticosteroids (CTI), short-acting and long-acting beta-2 agonists (SABA and LABA), and other medications that can be prescribed. Understand the doctor's instructions for using them and follow the plan diligently.
- These medications are also known as bronchodilators, as they increase the diameter of the airways to help increase oxygenation.
Step 4. Ask your doctor about using a positive airway pressure (CPAP) machine
If you have obstructive sleep apnea (OSAS), your airways may not open on their own, which can cause reduced oxygen saturation. Ask your doctor about a CPAP or Bipap machine to help keep your airway open and increase saturation.
The machine comes with a hose and mask for you to wear over your mouth and nose
Step 5. Keep an eye on emerging treatments
Although supplemental oxygen, medications, and breathing training are effective and common treatments for low saturation, new options continue to be developed. One example is treatment with stem cells, which are taken from the blood or bone marrow, isolated and reintroduced into the lungs.
New treatments can also pose new risks, of course, or end up not being as effective as initially expected. Do research to find out what options are available and work with your medical team to determine which treatment is right for you
Method 3 of 3: Making Lifestyle Changes
Step 1. Stop smoking and avoid passive smoking
Inhaling smoke from tobacco products seriously damages the lung and inhibits the ability to efficiently introduce oxygen into the bloodstream. If you smoke and have low levels of oxygen saturation, quitting smoking is the first and most important step you can take to deal with the condition. Get the help you need to break this habit.
If you are receiving supplemental oxygen, smoking even poses the risk of fire. Concentrated oxygen is extremely flammable, and many people have experienced serious or even fatal burns as a result of smoking while using supplemental oxygen
Step 2. Breathe fresh air
Atmospheric oxygen levels have an impact on saturation; for example, people who live at higher elevations typically have lower levels of saturation. The more oxygen and the less dust, particles and smoke circulating in the air you breathe, the better your saturation will be.
- If you live in an area with fresh air, open the window or go outside. Keep plants at home to increase oxygen levels. Clean and dust the house regularly and invest in air filters if desired.
- Don't expect a very high increase in saturation this way; use in conjunction with other changes.
Step 3. Lose excess weight if necessary
If your body mass index (BMI) is above recommended levels, the excess weight you carry probably makes your breathing more difficult and less efficient. A reduced BMI has been shown to be related to higher levels of oxygen saturation.
Also, even if saturation remains the same, losing weight makes it easier for the body to use oxygen. Compare that to an unloaded car that uses gasoline more efficiently
Step 4. Exercise moderately
Aerobic exercise alone does not necessarily increase saturation, but it does increase your ability to more efficiently utilize the oxygen you have. Physical activities that help you lose excess weight have a positive impact on saturation levels.
If you have COPD or another condition that influences your lung and cardiovascular health, there will be some restrictions on your exercise options. Develop a realistic and effective plan with your medical team
Step 5. Consume more water
You may remember from chemistry classes that the water molecule contains two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom. Therefore, every time you drink water or eat water-rich foods, you are bringing oxygen into your body. Swallowing a huge amount of water won't magically solve your problem, but regular hydration is a sensible part of any plan for someone with low levels of oxygen saturation.
- Pure water is the best option for hydration, while fruits and vegetables are healthy and water-rich food options. For example, try steamed spinach, carrots or green beans, or fresh fruit juices and smoothies.
- Drinking water can help loosen mucus from the airways, leaving them open to provide maximum access to oxygen.
Step 6. Try to sit down instead of lying down
You can cause a small but visible increase in oxygen saturation simply by choosing to sit over lying down. When resting or relaxing, sitting can facilitate deep breathing and increase saturation. Don't use this as an excuse not to get up and be active, as improving your physical level usually provides better and longer lasting benefits.
You can also change the position to improve breathing ability and increase saturation. This way is a non-invasive way to improve the problem. For example, if you are lying down, raise the head of the bed at least 30 degrees. Raising it by 45 to 60 degrees improves the saturation level even more
Step 7. Accept inevitable variations in oxygen saturation levels
While a level above 95% is considered good and below 90% is problematic, each individual is different. Levels vary from person to person based on many factors – they generally tend to be higher in mid-childhood and slowly decline thereafter, for example. Don't get stuck with a specific number; instead, work with your doctor to find a variation that suits your health.