Cardiac arrhythmias are common in patients with respiratory failure from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). Several factors may be potentially arrhythmogenic in these patients, including hypoxemia and hypercapnia, acid-base disturbances, cor pulmonale and the use of digitalis, methylxanthines, and sympathomimetic drugs. The aim of this study was to examine the effect of hypoxemia and hypercapnia on QTc dispersion (QTcD) in COPD patients, and to evaluate the effect of a partial correction of one of these pro-arrhythmic factors, the hypoxemia, on Qtc dispersion, as QTcD has been proposed as a marker of heterogeneous repolarization and, hence of ventricular electrical instability. We showed that in 15 hypoxemic/hypercapnic COPD patients, compared to 20 controls, the QTcD was significantly higher (49.7 +/- 10.6 vs. 22.9 +/- 9.8 ms; P = 0.0001); furthermore, after only 24 h of oxygen therapy, and hence after a partial correction of hypoxemia, there was a significant reduction in QTcD in COPD patients (49.7 +/- 10.6 vs. 36.3 +/- 10.1 ms; P = 0.018). The data of the present study suggest that the increase in QTcD may be an early marker of a blood gas mediated electropathy in COPD patients.