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What is Hypoxia?

Mary McMahon
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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Hypoxia is a family of conditions characterized by a lack of oxygen in the body's tissues. The condition may encompass the general body, or a specific area, such as the brain. In all cases, it can be dangerous or deadly, because without oxygen, the human body cannot function. Treatments for this condition usually start with providing concentrated oxygen to the patient for the purpose of stabilization, and then addressing the underlying cause of the hypoxia.

A number of problems between the moment air is inhaled and the time that oxygen is delivered to the cells can lead to hypoxia. For example, people at high altitude breathe “thin” air with reduced amounts of available oxygen, meaning that they inhale less oxygen than they need. Likewise, workers in a chemical lab might experience this condition as a result of an improperly controlled gas. Breathing problems such as asthma and constricted airways can cause a drop in oxygen levels in the blood, as can problems with the gas exchange in the lungs, or the hemoglobin cells which transport oxygen throughout the body.

When someone develops hypoxia, the condition is characterized by things like cyanosis, confusion, euphoria, nausea, dizziness, rapid breathing, or the sensation of air hunger. The condition can be diagnosed by drawing blood and determining the amount of dissolved oxygen present, or by looking for obvious signs of conditions which could cause oxygen deprivation, ranging from strokes which inhibit the supply of oxygen to the brain to collapsed lungs.

In some cases, the body is getting plenty of oxygen, but it can't use it, due to physiological problems. Some conditions which involve red blood cells cause hypoxia, by making it impossible for the cells to deliver needed oxygen, or by interfering with the process these cells use to bind and transport oxygen. In these instances, there may be no obvious cause for the patient's condition, which can sometimes make it challenging to diagnose.

Working and traveling at high altitude is a leading cause. This condition can also be caused by changes in cabin pressurization or interruptions to a plane's oxygen supply. Health conditions including cancers of the lungs, asthma, severe allergic reactions, strokes, and blood clots, among many others, can also contribute to the development of this condition. The condition may not always be readily evident to the patient, because oxygen deprivation can lead to subtle symptoms, which makes it important for people to be aware of personality and behavior changes in people who are at risk of developing hypoxia. A normally stoic person who suddenly becomes giddy, for example, might be suffering from oxygen deprivation.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a The Health Board researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By anon345484 — On Aug 19, 2013

Thank you for the information on the symptoms relating to hypoxia. I especially took note of the dangers of carbon monoxide and how it can cause hypoxia. Thank you! Anthony.

By anon169286 — On Apr 20, 2011

I'm a 16 year old girl, and I think I might have this. For like two years now I have been getting these sharp pains in my lungs right beneath my heart and it makes it to where I can breathe out, but not in. It's honestly like a knife stabbing me in the lung or something.

Well like two maybe three weeks ago on just one foot, one of my toes looked to have some kind of bruising, but I didn't smash it at all, then around last week on the same foot, a different toe started to get it, and it's making me kind of nervous. Could this be hypoxia?

By yumdelish — On Apr 13, 2011

Lung hypoxia is another common problem amongst mountain climbers, or those who like hiking in high altitude areas.

I read an article recently promoting oxygen concentrators, which are machines designed to avoid this problem. I think they come in a portable size, which is more convenient than carrying an oxygen tank with you on a climb!

By Windchime — On Apr 11, 2011

@Valencia - I can see your point, though I doubt many people really expect to face this kind of situation.

Something which I would like to mention is the dangers of developing hypoxia symptoms as a result of carbon monoxide poisoning.

Thousands of people die every year because they don't realize this is building up in their body. If more people started using monitors and read a little about the symptoms, who knows how many lives could be saved.

By Valencia — On Apr 09, 2011

Any smokers reading this article should use it as more evidence to help them quit! Most people know that tobacco stops your lungs working the best they can. If you are ever in a situation where you have to deal with hypoxia, those weak lungs will be struggling to keep up.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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