What Happens When Blood-Oxygen Levels Are Too Low?

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The cells of the body need a constant supply of oxygen. When oxygen supply is reduced or interrupted, a person may develop hypoxemia, a low level of oxygen in the blood.

Using an oximeter to measure blood oxygen level
Using an oximeter to measure blood oxygen level (Image: John Moore/Getty Images News/Getty Images)

Hypoxemia

Hypoxemia can disrupt body function and damage vital tissues. In extreme cases, hypoxemia can be life-threatening.

Doctor examining hospital patient
Doctor examining hospital patient (Image: Thomas Northcut/Digital Vision/Getty Images)

Symptoms

The first and most common symptom of hypoxemia is shortness of breath. In some cases, symptoms of weakness, fatigue and confusion are also present.

Feeling fatigued
Feeling fatigued (Image: Jupiterimages/Comstock/Getty Images)

Effects

Low blood-oxygen levels eventually affect every system of the body as organ function deteriorates.

Human organs
Human organs (Image: Hemera Technologies/PhotoObjects.net/Getty Images)

Causes

Common causes of low blood oxygen levels are heart or lung disease, anemia, strenuous exercise, carbon monoxide poisoning, emphysema, pneumonia, shock, shallow breathing, stress and sleep apnea.

heart disease is one possible cause of Hypoxemia
heart disease is one possible cause of Hypoxemia (Image: Stockbyte/Stockbyte/Getty Images)

Measuring Blood Oxygen

Blood oxygen can be measured by an arterial blood test or by an oximeter, a device that clips onto the finger. At sea level, normal blood oxygen readings are between 95 and 100 percent. Readings under 90 are considered low. At levels below 80 percent, the condition is considered severe.

Personal mobile oximeter, displayed at CES 2013 in Las Vegas
Personal mobile oximeter, displayed at CES 2013 in Las Vegas (Image: David Becker/Getty Images News/Getty Images)

Treatment

Medical treatment for hypoxemia involves administering oxygen by face mask or mechanical ventilation. Doctors may also recommend regular exercise to strengthen the respiratory muscles and avoiding cigarette smoke.

Wearing an oxygen mask
Wearing an oxygen mask (Image: Stockbyte/Stockbyte/Getty Images)

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