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What is Hypoxemia?

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  • Written By: Tricia Ellis-Christensen
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 04 November 2016
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Hypoxemia is a medical condition where low levels of oxygen occur in the blood throughout the body. Oxygen levels are often measured in percentage, and usually anything from 95-100% is considered normal. Some conditions can cause oxygen levels to drop well below this, and if a person has 90% oxygen saturation or less, they may be diagnosed with hypoxemia. Some people can have much lower saturation levels, making the condition more severe. In certain instances, people with conditions like congenital heart defects may have chronically low saturation levels in the 80s or below, particularly if they have cardiac shunts.

There are many potential causes of hypoxemia. Many of these have to do with lung function. Inhaling certain substances like carbon monoxide in large amounts may lower blood oxygen level. Simple conditions such as pneumonia may sometimes make it difficult for the blood to be adequately oxygenated when it reaches the lungs. Other lung conditions that may result in hypoxemia include emphysema, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or pulmonary embolus. Just about any condition that reduces lung function, whether it is temporary, like reaching a very high altitude suddenly, or more permanent, may affect how well the lungs can oxygenate blood.

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As mentioned, certain heart conditions may result in hypoxemia too. Any time blood flow is less than normal, not enough blood may flow to the lungs to be oxygenated. Another possible cause is anemia, where there are too few red blood cells to carry oxygen to the body’s tissues.

The main symptom of hypoxemia may be shortness of breath, but other potential symptoms include paleness, weakness, fatigue, and bluish skin at the extremities, particularly around the fingernails and toenails. Long-term oxygen deficit may lead to other problems like clubbing of the fingers and toes.

How to treat this condition very much depends on its causal factors. Bacterial pneumonia would probably be treated with antibiotics, and whether these were oral or intravenous would depend on how serious an infection seemed and the level of hypoxemia. For chronic conditions, oxygen might be used to raise oxygen saturation levels in the blood. Essentially, doctors would attend to the underlying condition but might also give supportive treatment like oxygen or respiratory support, while giving treatment time to work.

The causes and treatment of hypoxemia are varied, but people should look at the symptoms of this condition, particularly shortness of breath as a serious sign. If shortness of breath occurs without a plausible explanation like rigorous exercise, or if it comes on suddenly, medical help is usually needed immediately.

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