What is a Oxygen Deficit?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: Kristen Osborne
  • Last Modified Date: 01 November 2019
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An oxygen deficit is a shortage of oxygen in an organism, caused by anything from exercise to pulmonary disease. Lack of oxygen is associated with a cascade of medical issues and can be very dangerous without treatment. Options for managing oxygen deficit vary, depending on why it is happening and the patient's general level of health. People like pulmonologists are involved in the process of diagnosing and treating patients with this problem.

The body requires oxygen to function. Gas exchange in the lungs provides a mechanism for getting oxygen into the blood so it can supply the tissues. An oxygen deficit may be the result of a problem with the lungs, like lung collapse or obstruction of the airways. People can also use more oxygen than they are able to take in, as seen when people exercise heavily, use up stored energy, and start to gasp for air because they cannot get enough oxygen to meet the needs of the body.


A lack of oxygen can lead to brain damage, muscle cramps, and organ failure. Levels low enough will kill the patient, as the brain will shut down and be unable to perform key functions necessary for survival. Oxygen deficits are a cause for concern, even if they are low level, as the damage can be subtle and cumulative. A doctor can determine if a patient is getting enough oxygen by testing the blood to see how much dissolved oxygen is present. When saturation levels are low, it indicates a problem with the patient's supply of oxygen.

In the case of oxygen deficit associated with exercise, resting and developing a moderate exercise regimen to build up strength and tolerance may resolve the issue. People with pulmonary diseases who want to exercise may need to take steps like using inhalers to open the airways, and engaging in modified exercise activities to protect their lungs and make sure they don't develop a dangerous oxygen deficit while exercising.

When disease is the cause, medical evaluation will determine the origins of the condition and provide information a doctor can use to develop a treatment plan. This may include medications, lifestyle modifications, and surgery, all with the goal of making sure the patient's body gets the oxygen it needs. Some patients may require supplemental oxygen, delivered though a face mask or nasal cannula, to increase the amount of oxygen reaching the lungs and boost the oxygenation of the blood.


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