What Are the Symptoms of Hypoxemia?

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  • Written By: Dan Harkins
  • Edited By: Kaci Lane Hindman
  • Last Modified Date: 30 March 2020
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When oxygen concentration in the bloodstream dips below 90 percent, doctors are likely to diagnose a patient with hypoxemia, which comes in tandem with an overall bodily deficiency of oxygen called hypoxia. Also known as oxygen desaturation, the condition is primarily marked by labored, shallow breathing. Other symptoms of hypoxemia are likely too — from headaches, numbness and bluish skin to neurological difficulties, lethargy and even a sense of euphoria.

Doctors encourage at-risk patients to regularly test blood oxygenation with a pulse oximeter. This device clips onto a fingertip and aims light through the skin that is absorbed differently depending on the approximate oxygenation of the blood. Any reading north of 95 percent is considered healthy. Physicians may start to take note when levels fall anywhere below that, with 90 percent the accepted threshold before diagnosing hypoxemia.

Neurological difficulties can develop as signs of hypoxemia and hypoxia, in addition to the chronic shortness of breath. These could include a lack of coordination, trouble seeing, euphoric sensations or an inability to concentrate. Symptoms of this could also take on more concrete physical form with headaches, nausea, lethargy and bluish, tingling skin. The severest cases could result in death, a coma, unconsciousness or a seizure.


An integral part of treating the symptoms of hypoxemia is addressing its potential causes. The primary suspect is lung disease, which could stem from a condition like cancer, cystic fibrosis or even emphysema. Several other causes are possible though, like hypo-ventilation, a shunting procedure, asthma, anemia, arterial damage, prescription interactions, pneumonia, an obstruction of the airway and even heart disease. Many environmental factors also can exacerbate the condition, from high altitudes and smoking to obesity and pollution.

The symptoms of hypoxemia are similar to those suffered from other oxygenation problems. When hypoxemia advances quickly due to a sudden lack of oxygen supply, some refer to this condition as anoxia. Asphyxiation combines that lack of supply with an overabundance of toxic carbon dioxide.

After initial testing with a pulse oximeter, doctors are likely to confirm suspicions with a blood test that can obtain a more accurate percentage of blood oxygenation. The symptoms of hypoxemia are most often addressed by quickly increasing a patient's oxygen intake. This could require a ventilator or simply canisters of oxygen. Other treatments may include sleep therapy, dietary changes, an exercise regimen and breathing exercises to optimize lung capacity.


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