What is Hypoxemia?

Hypoxemia is a medical term used to describe inadequate oxygen in the blood. Hypoxemia occurs when the oxygen in the blood falls below a certain predetermined level. This is usually caused by a decrease in the number of red blood cells, which transport oxygen to the body’s tissues, or a decrease in oxygen saturation of the hemoglobin, the molecules that transport oxygen. Hypoxemia can cause a range of symptoms depending on the severity.

Causes of Hypoxemia

Hypoxemia can be caused by a wide range of conditions both within the lungs and outside of them. Common causes include:

  • Pneumonia
  • Asthma
  • Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)
  • Pulmonary embolism (blood clot in the lungs)
  • Interstitial lung disease (lung scarring)
  • Respiratory muscle weakness
  • High altitude
  • Sepsis
  • Sleep apnea
  • Anemia
  • Pulmonary edema
  • Carbon monoxide poisoning

Symptoms of Hypoxemia

The symptoms of hypoxemia can range from mild to severe, depending on the severity and cause. Common symptoms include:

  • Shortness of breath
  • Fatigue
  • Headache
  • Rapid breathing
  • Confusion or disorientation
  • Coughing
  • Blue tint to the skin (cyanosis)

Treatment for Hypoxemia

Treatment for hypoxemia begins with identifying the underlying cause of the condition, and treating it accordingly. Depending on the cause, treatment can range from supplemental oxygen therapy – such as oxygen masks to be placed over the nose or mouth – to antibiotics or other medications. In severe cases, such as respiratory failure, the patient may need to be intubated to help them breathe.

Preventing Hypoxemia

One of the best ways to prevent hypoxemia is by avoiding the conditions that can cause it. This can include avoiding smoking, minimizing exposure to air pollution, and adhering to treatments for existing medical conditions. In addition, for those who live in areas such as the Himalayas, where altitude-related hypoxemia is common, it can be beneficial to avoid sudden increases in altitude.