Hypoxia is a serious condition that, if not taken into consideration timely, may cause death or other severe and permanent health consequences.

What is Hypoxia?

What is Hypoxia?

Hypoxia is a condition in which the body does not have enough oxygen supply. When there is low oxygen content in the blood, it is called hypoxia and a low blood oxygen level means that the blood would not be able to carry enough oxygen to the body organs and tissues. This condition is also referred to as Hypoxemia. Often, the term Hypoxia refers to both these conditions – low oxygen in blood and body tissues.

When there is not enough oxygen supply to the brain, liver and the rest of the body organs, there would be an immediate damage of these organs. The impacts or complications can be long-lasting, permanent and can even be fatal.

Causes of Hypoxia

There can be a number of causes behind hypoxia. The common causes include –

  • Environmental Conditions Leading to Hypoxia: When, there is a low oxygen concentration in the air, hypoxia can be a consequence. The decreased oxygen level in higher altitude often causes hypoxia to the mountain climbers or people living in the higher altitudes. Even those, who are drowning, can encounter Hypoxia due to absence of breathable oxygen in water.
  • Air Poisoning: There are machines and engines that release carbon monoxide and when the carbon monoxide is trapped inside a confined space, people inhaling the gas may suffer from carbon monoxide poisoning leading to hypoxia. In this case, it must also be mentioned that yet another poisoning, known as the cyanide poisoning, can also cause hypoxia.
  • Birth Defect and Other Causes of Hypoxia: This is probably the most common cause of hypoxia in infants and children. Babies who are born premature often do not have completely developed lungs. Hence, breathing is impaired for them, leading to death within a short span after birth.

The other causes of hypoxia in infants, caused by lack of oxygen supply before and after birth include –

  • Placental abruption
  • Maternal anaemia
  • Maternal smoking
  • Birth asyphyxia
  • Traumatic brain damages
  • Inadequate foetal monitoring.

The doctor will be able to identify the exact cause, in case of hypoxia in an infant. Also, if the infant doesn't cry immediately after birth, the lungs do not inflate and this too can lead to hypoxia.

  • Lung Diseases: Certain lung diseases like bronchitis, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, pneumonia, emphysemapulmonary edema etc. can disrupt the oxygen supply to the body tissues, leading to hypoxia. It must be noted that those, who have asthma problems, are more susceptible to hypoxia.
  • Ischemia and Other Heart Problems: One of the most prominent causes of hypoxia is ischemia. In this condition, the flow of blood to the body tissues is insufficient. Trauma and heart attacks cause ischemia and reduce the blood flow. Therefore, the oxygen supply is also decreased. Even if there are other heart problems such as a blockage in the arteries, it can cause hypoxia.
  • Anaemia and Hypoxia: Those, who are anaemic, have a higher chance of suffering from hypoxia. This is because the red blood cells that carry the oxygenated blood to the different cells and tissues of the body are inadequate in case of anaemia. Therefore, the oxygen supply is also reduced, leading to hypoxia.

What are the Complications of Hypoxia?

Hypoxia is a serious problem that if not taken care of immediately, may lead to severe and permanent damages or even cause death.

  • Brain Damage and Paralysis due to Hypoxia: The primary complication of hypoxia is permanent brain damage and paralysis. This is very prominent in postnatal cases in which, within 48 hours of birth, the infant experiences permanent brain damage and paralysis upon complete hypoxia. About 1/3rd of all neonatal deaths are attributed to hypoxia, as per the reports of U.S National Institute of Health.
  • Brain Death and Vegetative State: This means that there will be breathing, eye opening, and blood pressure etc. basic life functions; but the person will not respond to the surroundings or will not be alert. Within a year or so, the person will die. During this period, malnutrition and bed sore will be common and obvious consequences.
  • Hypoxia Leading to Cerebral Palsy: When the brain doesn't receive enough oxygen, it leads to complications like brain tissue damage resulting in cerebral palsy. Within five minutes of the oxygen supply to the brain being cut, the brain cells start to die rapidly, leading to cerebral palsy.
  • Necrosis or Tissue Death as a Complication of Hypoxia: Hypoxia can lead to death of body tissue or necrosis.

How to Identify if You are having Hypoxia or What are the Symptoms of Hypoxia?

Oxygen is one of the most important elements in the body and therefore, low oxygen level in the blood and body tissues has a significant ill-impact on the body. Once a person starts having hypoxia, the symptoms are shown immediately. The signs and symptoms of hypoxia that help in identifying the condition soon are feelings of choking, shortness of breath while resting, severe shortness of breath after physical activity, decreased physical activity, decreased tolerance level, sweating, fast heart rate, frequent cough, waking up out of breath, bluish discoloration of the skin, wheezing, change in body colour, ranging from blue to cherry red, tiredness and fatigue, feeling lightheaded, palpitation, headache, uncoordinated movements, confusion, vomiting and nausea, no pupil dilation, loss of consciousness, convulsions or seizures, coma, raised blood pressure initially, leading to low blood pressure later.

All these symptoms can gradually lead to death, if not taken care of at an early stage. Hence, it is very important to note the symptoms and seek medical help immediately.

Diagnosis of Hypoxia

The symptoms help the doctor to diagnose the condition and identify the cause of hypoxia. In case a person, especially a child is in a state of hypoxia for more than 5 minutes, the doctor will take necessary measures to prevent the condition from worsening. This can be done without being admitted to the hospital or medical care, in case it is less severe a problem, such as caused by environmental conditions. Otherwise, for severe complications, admission to the hospital is a must.

Treatments of Hypoxia

Treating Hypoxia at once is very important; otherwise it may lead to fatal consequences. There are a number of treatment methods that are followed to treat hypoxia. These include –

  • Oxygen Therapy for Hypoxia: Supplying oxygen to the lungs is the immediate treatment method that needs to be followed in case of hypoxia. For that a mechanical device is used to supply prescribed oxygen. This immediately increases the oxygen in the blood, relieves the patient of shortness of breath and aids in the functionality of the lungs and other body organs. Oxygen tanks are used for the oxygen supply through facemasks or nasal or oral tubes that are directly inserted to the windpipe. Sometimes, liquid oxygen is used as it takes less space for storage. However, the major problem with liquid oxygen is as soon as the liquid oxygen leaves the container, it evaporates.
  • Medication for Treating Hypoxia: Medications play as important a role in the treatment of hypoxia as oxygen therapy. If the cause of hypoxia is asthma or other such health problems, they need to be catered to at once. Apart from treating the causative factors with medicines, it is equally important that you treat the symptoms.
    • Medicines need to be taken to treat blood pressure
    • Cardiac medicines need to be taken to control chest pain and heart failures
    • Medicines for allergy
    • Medicines to control GERD or Acid Reflux

Preventing Hypoxia

If the cause of hypoxia is a birth defect or some other diseases, it cannot be prevented. However, the external factors can be taken care of to prevent hypoxia. These would include –

  • Smoking or passive smoking
  • Avoid dust in the air
  • Chemical gases in the air
  • Avoiding higher altitudes
  • Having oxygen supply.

Identification of hypoxia symptoms on time is very crucial. The doctor will help in offering the best treatment. It is always a good idea to avoid the factors that contribute to hypoxia. If you have had previous episodes of this condition, take proper measures and take care of the factors that led to the condition.

Written, Edited or Reviewed By:

, MD, FFARCSI

Last Modified On: December 8, 2016

Pain Assist Inc.

Pramod Kerkar
  Note: Information provided is not a substitute for physician, hospital or any form of medical care. Examination and Investigation is necessary for correct diagnosis.

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