Sudden death and oxyhemoglobin desaturation are known to occur during sleep in patients with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. The present study was undertaken to determine the frequency with which nocturnal oxygen desaturation promotes an increase in ventricular ectopic activity, since such a relationship could represent a potential pathophysiologic mechanism for sudden death during sleep. Forty-two clinically stable subjects with moderately severe obstructive airways disease, mean ratio of one-second forced expiratory volume to forced vital capacity = 51 +/- 12 percent, underwent overnight polygraphic sleep study. Oxyhemoglobin saturation was monitored by ear oximetry, and electrocardiographic leads CC5 and CM5 were employed for arrhythmia detection. Premature ventricular complexes were detected in 27 (64 percent) of the subjects and were complex (multifocal, repetitive, or both) in 17. No significant relationship between premature ventricular complex frequency and arterial oxygen saturation was detected for the group as a whole. In part, this result can be attributed to the relatively mild hypoxemic stress experienced by the 22 subjects in whom arterial oxygen saturation remained greater than 80 percent. In contrast, six (30 percent) of the 20 patients who had desaturation to less than 80 percent showed a greater than 150 percent increase in premature ventricular complex frequency with oxygen desaturation. These results suggest that nocturnal hypoxemia, if of sufficient magnitude, is capable of increasing ventricular ectopy during sleep in a substantial number of patients with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.