Common Effects Of Low Blood Oxygen Levels

blood oxygen levels

Photo by ulleo, CC0 1.0

Our blood delivers oxygen to every single cell, tissue and organ in our bodies. When those blood oxygen levels get too low, hypoxemia happens. This means our cells are not functioning properly – and our system is at stake. Signs that blood oxygen levels may be low include shortness of breath, fatigue and increased breathing rate. This can be the cause of such respiratory diseases as COPD, emphysema, asthma or cystic fibrosis.

Hypoxemia may eventually lead to comatose or—at worst—death. This is why it is vital for you to seek a doctor immediately if you suspect you have low blood oxygen levels. However, there are 3 stages of hypoxemia that you need to be aware of.

Mild Hypoxemia

The “normal” respiratory rate for adults is 12 breaths per minute. Because mild hypoxemia increases our breath rate, you may be “pushing” 24 breaths per minute (or possibly higher). This is a result of feeling breathless or generally short of breath – due to the lack of oxygen. To combat this, our heart tries pumping out more oxygen to our bloodstreams to compensate for the lack of oxygen.

(Think of a car engine trying to burn gasoline that it doesn’t have.) This can/has lead to anxiety, restlessness and constant, never-ending headaches. It’s worth noting that, for many people who experience this stage, all that is needed is more oxygen. You can get more oxygen into your body simply by practicing deep-breathing exercises to increase oxygen rate.

Here is an easy breathing exercise you can do right now:

  • Sit up straight
  • Inhale until your lungs are full
  • Count to three
  • Slowly exhale until your lungs are empty
  • Repeat for 5-10 minutes

For many people at this stage who go to the hospital, a nasal cannula (that tube nurses insert in your nose) is enough to bring oxygen levels back to normal. That is why it is important to go to a hospital immediately if you suspect your oxygen levels are low. During triage, nurses doing intake will be able to instantly tell whether or not you need assistance.

Severe Hypoxemia

If you still haven’t seen a doctor, mild hypoxemia develops into severe hypoxemia. At this stage: expect impaired brain functions which leads to a worsening attention span, severe confusion and frequent disorientation. (Your brain simply cannot make heads or tails of anything.) Because of the lack of oxygen in your blood, physical activity or simple movements become increasingly difficult, forcing you to spend more energy which further tires you out. Both your heart rate and blood pressure falls below average levels; expect frequent chest pains as a result of your heart not receiving the oxygen it needs. Your skin may also become discoloured (this is called Cyanosis). These symptoms increase twofold if the arteries leading to your heart are narrowed – usually in the form of coronary artery disease.

Chronic Hypoxemia

If your oxygen level (or if you’ve been experiencing any of the aforementioned symptoms) has been low for more than 5 days, you’ve progressed into chronic hypoxemia.

When chronic hypoxemia happens, the production of red blood cells slows (this is called polycythemia). Red blood cells are important because they allow oxygen to be transferred to our organs and tissues, while removing harmful carbon dioxide. This form of hypoxemia – if left untreated – causes high blood pressure in the lungs (called pulmonary hypertension); the heart’s right ventricle (responsible for pumping blood into our lungs) shifts into overdrive, working harder and wearing itself out to failure.


On the flip side of the coin, these symptoms themselves (regardless of their severity) are not enough to self-determine hypoxemia. This is why it is crucial for you to see your family physician immediately when any or all of these effects are present. Shortness of breath (whether it’s sudden, ongoing or severe) is not a matter to take lightly and you must seek medical attention immediately.

Religiously keep track of your oxygen levels to easily determine the effectiveness of your treatment and find out other health interventions that you might need. Your healthcare provider may recommend that you undergo a painless and nonivasive procedure using a pulse oximetry sensors to accurately measure your oxygen saturation.

Both the severe and chronic cases of hypoxemia may result in you requiring a mechanical ventilation system and oxygen therapy (through the use of the portable oxygen concentrators mentioned above).

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