If you or your loved one have COPD, you may be familiar with the term hypoxia. To better understand how hypoxia impacts your body organs and tissues, including the heart, let’s first talk about how COPD can cause it.
COPD and hypoxia
In the body, oxygen goes into the lungs and is carried by the alveoli into the blood. The oxygenated blood then travels to various body organs and tissues, which all need oxygen to function well. In lung damage due to COPD, the lungs may not be able to take in enough oxygen. Thus, blood from the lungs may not be able to supply enough oxygen to body organs and tissues, causing hypoxia.
Some of the most common symptoms of hypoxia include:
- Very fast breathing
- Increased heart rate
- Shortness of breath
- Changes in skin color, such as a bluish tinge
- Weakness and lethargy
- Coughing and wheezing
Note that these symptoms can vary from person to person. Severe hypoxia can be very harmful, so seek medical attention immediately.
Hypoxia and your heart
One of the most important organs affected by a lack of oxygen is the heart. The heart muscle, which needs oxygen to keep it pumping, is markedly sensitive to fluctuations in oxygen levels. Lungs that are damaged and do not function well make it more difficult for the heart muscle to get enough oxygen. This is one of the reasons why COPD is often associated with heart illnesses.
Acute or short-term hypoxia causes an increase in heart rate along with mild hypertension. This is due to the reaction of certain physiologic mechanisms that control heart rate and regulate respiratory activity to maintain gas concentrations in the body.
In the long term, however, hypoxia may cause damage to the heart and circulation. One of these conditions is pulmonary hypertension. Pulmonary hypertension is an increased pressure in the pulmonary arteries, which carry blood from the heart to the lungs for oxygenation. The right side of the heart is responsible for pumping blood into the lungs to pick up oxygen. This oxygenated blood then travels back to the left side of the heart to be pumped to body organs and tissues.
People with long-term hypoxia are prone to vasoconstriction (narrowing) of the pulmonary arteries. This results in the build-up of pressure in these arteries, which causes the right side of the heart to pump harder. Such stress can then cause the heart’s right ventricle to become damaged and weak, and thus unable to pump enough blood into the lungs. This condition can later on lead to right heart failure.
Additionally, a person with COPD may also be predisposed to mild heart failure. Research shows that about 20-70 % of COPD patients develop heart failure. Such a condition may be due in part to increased inflammation in the body along with the damage caused by lack of oxygen in certain tissues.
Can heart illness be prevented in COPD?
The answer is yes, it can! One of the things you can do to protect yourself from heart disease is to work closely with your doctor to create a treatment regimen that prevents COPD from getting worse. Lifestyle changes, like quitting smoking, weight management and regular exercise will also have a big impact. It’s also a good idea to regularly monitor your blood pressure and cholesterol levels. Always follow your medication and oxygen therapy regimens, and talk to your doctor if you experience any changes with your symptoms.