Hypoxia (Hypoxemia)

Medically Reviewed on 9/22/2022

What is hypoxia and hypoxemia (low blood oxygen)?

Hypoxia is a state of insufficient oxygen supply for normal life functions, and hypoxemia is a state of low arterial oxygen supply.
Hypoxia is a state of insufficient oxygen supply for normal life functions, and hypoxemia is a state of low arterial oxygen supply.

Hypoxia is a condition or state in which the supply of oxygen in the arteries is insufficient for normal life functions. Hypoxemia is a condition or state in which there is a low arterial oxygen supply. Hypoxia is sometimes used to describe both states (hypoxia and hypoxemia).

Within the body, hypoxemia can lead to hypoxia (tissue hypoxia) in various tissues and organs with the most severe being cerebral hypoxia which can rapidly result in brain damage or death.

Conversely, if a person experiences environmental hypoxia (low or absent oxygen in the environment from high altitudes or drowning, for example), the person can develop hypoxemia.

What causes hypoxia and hypoxemia?

The causes of both environmental and tissue hypoxia often result in the intermediate state of hypoxemia; thus the causes of any type of hypoxia are also potential causes of hypoxemia.

Some of the many causes of hypoxia are the following:


What Is Asthma? Symptoms, Causes, and Treatments See Slideshow

What are the symptoms of hypoxia and hypoxemia?

The symptoms of hypoxia and/or hypoxemia may be acute or chronic.

Acute symptoms can come on rapidly and usually consist of the following:

  • Shortness of breath
  • Rapid breathing
  • A fast heart rate

Other associated symptoms that can occur in both acute and chronic hypoxia and hypoxemia include:

The affected individual may be mildly confused initially and appear weak or may experience rapid changes in the color of his or her skin ranging from blue to cherry red (depending on the causes).

Severe symptoms seen with cerebral hypoxia include:

  • Confusion
  • Inability to communicate
  • Coma, which can lead to death

The symptoms in pediatric patients can be similar to the above and may include the following:

  • Lethargy
  • Irritableness
  • Anxiousness
  • Inattentiveness
  • Sitting up and leaning forward to improve diaphragmatic breathing
  • Children with epiglottitis and airway restriction may drool and mainly breathe by mouth.

How is hypoxia and hypoxemia diagnosed?

Blood oxygen levels can also be measured using an instrument known as a pulse oximeter.
Blood oxygen levels can also be measured using an instrument known as a pulse oximeter.

In general, an individual patient’s hypoxemia is usually diagnosed by oxygen monitors placed on fingers or ears (pulse oximeter) and/or by determining the oxygen level in a blood gas sample (a sample of blood taken from an artery). Normal readings are about 95% to 100% oxygen saturation levels; generally, oxygen is supplied if the level is about 92% or below.

Blood Oxygen Levels Chart Using a Pulse Oximetry
Condition SpO2 Range
Normal 95% to 100%
Brain Gets Affected 80% to 85%
Cyanosis 65%

Other tests may be ordered to determine if other potential problems such as carbon monoxide poisoning are responsible for the hypoxia.

Pulmonary function tests may also be ordered along with other studies to help determine the cause of unexplained low oxygen saturation.

What is the treatment for hypoxia and hypoxemia?

The treatment for hypoxia and/or hypoxemia is to give additional oxygen to the patient and into the body (blood) as quickly as possible, especially if cerebral hypoxia is suspected, or to treat the underlying cause of the hypoxia.

Many patients will respond to additional oxygen supplied by a nasal cannula. The quicker the oxygen level reaches normal, the better the prognosis is for the patient. However, the timing is very important, because cerebral hypoxia can occur within a few minutes and, in many patients, may not be reversible.

Some patients may be treated in a hyperbaric chamber that increases oxygen concentrations in the blood (used in carbon monoxide poisoning), while others may require mechanical ventilation (intubation) with oxygen supplied at higher than normal atmospheric concentrations.

Others, such as mountain climbers or airline passengers, may need only additional oxygen provided by oxygen masks until they reach lower levels where oxygen concentrations are closer to the normal levels (about 21%) in the atmosphere.

However, care must be used when giving oxygen, as it can be toxic to tissues if it is used excessively (hyperoxia). Hyperoxia may cause:

  • Vertigo,
  • Behavior changes
  • Other central nervous system changes such as seizures and/or tissue damage, may result in:

Hyperoxia may occur in patients undergoing hyperbaric therapy or in long-term ICU patients.

Can hypoxia and hypoxemia be prevented?

Hypoxia and hypoxemia may be prevented in some individuals by avoiding circumstances that reduce the oxygen concentration in the environment or by providing oxygen via nasal cannula or oxygen masks before hypoxia and/or hypoxemia develop.

This can be done by recognizing those individuals who tend to develop hypoxia and/or hypoxemia and providing them with oxygen if they develop any of the early symptoms.

Moreover, some medications can provide prevention and/or relief from hypoxia/hypoxemia symptoms that are due to certain medical conditions like asthma.

Medically Reviewed on 9/22/2022
Medscape. Oxygen Therapy in Critical Illness

Medscape. Pediatric Respiratory Failure.

Patel, N. D. "Oxygen Toxicity." JIACM 2003; 4(3): 234-7.