Everything You Need to Know about Hypoxia

Hypoxia is a condition that can occur when the body or brain doesn't receive enough oxygen. Although rare, it can be deleterious and life-threatening if not treated. This article post will discuss the causes and symptoms of Hypoxia and how it's treated. By understanding Hypoxia, you can be better equipped to identify and respond to potential hazards.

What is Hypoxia, and what are its symptoms?

It is a harmful condition in which the body or a region of the body is deprived of ample oxygen supply at the tissue level. When Hypoxia is severe, it can lead to organ damage and even death. Long term Hypoxia is usually without obvious symptoms, but when Hypoxia is sudden or severe, the body tries to compensate for the lack of oxygen by breathing more rapidly and raising the heart rate to deliver blood to tissue more quickly. Such reactions lead to symptoms such as shortness of breath, and a racing heart rate. In more severe cases, when these reactions fail to increase tissue oxygenation adequately, the organs struggle with low oxygen supply and cause organ malfunction, leading to symptoms of confusion, dizziness, chest pain, headaches, nausea and even fainting spells.

The diseases that can be associated with Hypoxia are:
• Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)
• Asthma
• Lung cancer
• Pneumonia
• Obstructive Sleep Apnea Syndrome (OSAS)
• Anemia
• Shock
• Myocardial infarction (heart attack)
• Chronic heart failure
• Angina pectoris
• Pulmonary embolism
• Stroke

How does Hypoxia occur, and who is at risk?

Hypoxia occurs when the body is short of oxygen. This shortage can occur from factors affecting different steps of the oxygen supply chain.

It can be due to low oxygen levels in the air supply, such as at high altitudes, inside air-conditioned rooms or in places with severe air pollution. The oxygen shortage can also be due to obstruction of the airway that prevents normal air flow into the lungs, this can occur with any disease that blocks air flow. e.g. blocked nose, bronchitis, asthma.

Damaged lung tissue from pneumonia, smoking, COPD or COVID-19 infection, can impede oxygen extraction from air in the lungs. Anemia or other blood disorders such as thalassemia, often lead to tissue Hypoxia because the insufficient or abnormal hemoglobin (oxygen carrier pigment in red blood cells) fails to carry enough oxygen in the bloodstream, leading to poor oxygen supply to the tissues.

Finally, poor blood supply due to heart disease (failure of blood pump) or blocked blood vessels is another factor that prevents delivery of the oxygen carried in the blood to the tissues, causing tissue Hypoxia. As you can see, so many factors cause Hypoxia and many people encounter one or several of these factors. When oxygen levels in the body tissues drop, the body's cells cannot function properly and organ malfunction occurs. If left untreated, Hypoxia can be fatal.

If left untreated, Hypoxia can be fatal.

Long-term effects of Hypoxia on the body and mind

The long-term effects of Hypoxia are insidious and have been associated with degenerative changes and cancer.

Hypoxia to the brain over extended periods have been shown to cause cognitive difficulties and dementia. Hypoxia has been consistently associated with cancer. In 2019, three scientists; Peter Ratcliffe, Gregg Semenza and William Kaelin jointly won the Nobel Prize for discovering how long-term Hypoxia and cancerous changes in cells.

While short-term Hypoxia may cause uncomfortable symptoms, long-term Hypoxia produces far more serious conditions in the body and mind.

What treatments are available for people with Hypoxia, and are they suitable for you?

Various treatments are available for people with Hypoxia, depending on the severity of the condition and the disease factors causing the Hypoxia.

Oxygen therapy is a standard treatment for Hypoxia, which commonly involves breathing in pure oxygen through a mask or nasal cannula. This can help to increase oxygen levels in the blood and improve symptoms.

In more severe cases, oxygen may be delivered by mechanical high-pressure ventilators that push oxygen into the lungs. More aggressive treatments may also be necessary if the heart of lungs fail to function, and the condition is life-threatening. These can include extracorporeal membrane oxygenation (ECMO), which mechanically pumps oxygen into the blood which is diverted into a machine oxygenator device outside the body where a ‘mechanical heart and lung’ completely takes over the function of the person’s own heart and lungs. There is also hyperbaric oxygen therapy (HBOT) where high atmospheric pressure forces greater oxygen solubility into the whole body’s tissue fluid, thereby enabling oxygenation of every tissue cell.

While there is no cure for Hypoxia, treatment can help to improve symptoms and quality of life. However, it is noteworthy that these conventional oxygen therapy measures are inconvenient, expensive, risky and often come with serious side effects. So, doctors will only prescribe these oxygen therapies for you if your condition is life threatening. Using these drastic methods for health maintenance is not suitable.

How can you prevent yourself or someone you know from developing Hypoxia?

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  1. Bhutta. (2022, May 8). Hypoxia. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/29493941
  2. Bhutta, B. S., Faysal Alghoula, & Ilya Berim. (2022, May 8). Hypoxia. Nih.gov; StatPearls Publishing. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK482316/
  3. Khoo J, Hagemeyer CE, Henstridge DC, Kumble S, Wang T-Y, Xu R, et al. (2021) Effects of water stably-enriched with oxygen as a novel method of tissue oxygenation on mitochondrial function, and as adjuvant therapy for type 2 diabetes in a randomized placebo-controlled trial. PLoS ONE 16(7): e0254619. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0254619