Hypoxemia (low blood oxygen)

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Definition

Hypoxemia is a below-normal level of oxygen in your blood, specifically in the arteries. Hypoxemia is a sign of a problem related to breathing or circulation, and may result in various symptoms, such as shortness of breath.

Hypoxemia is determined by measuring the oxygen level in a blood sample taken from an artery (arterial blood gas). It can also be estimated by measuring the oxygen saturation of your blood using a pulse oximeter — a small device that clips to your finger.

Normal arterial oxygen is approximately 75 to 100 millimeters of mercury (mm Hg). Values under 60 mm Hg usually indicate the need for supplemental oxygen. Normal pulse oximeter readings usually range from 95 to 100 percent. Values under 90 percent are considered low.

Causes

Several factors are needed to continuously supply the cells and tissues in your body with oxygen:

  • There must be enough oxygen in the air you are breathing
  • Your lungs must be able to inhale the oxygen-containing air and exhale carbon dioxide
  • Your bloodstream must be able to circulate blood to your lungs, take up the oxygen and carry it throughout your body

A problem with any of these factors — for example, high altitude, asthma or heart disease — might result in hypoxemia, particularly under more extreme conditions, such as exercise or illness. When your blood oxygen falls below a certain level, you might experience shortness of breath, headache, and confusion or restlessness.

Common causes of hypoxemia include:

  • Anemia
  • ARDS (acute respiratory distress syndrome)
  • Asthma
  • Congenital heart defects in children
  • Congenital heart disease in adults
  • COPD Chronic obstructive pulmonary diseases
  • Emphysema
  • Interstitial lung disease
  • Medications, such as certain narcotics and anesthetics, that depress breathing
  • Pneumonia
  • Pneumothorax (collapsed lung)
  • Pulmonary edema
  • Pulmonary embolism (blood clot in an artery in the lung)
  • Pulmonary fibrosis
  • Sleep apnea

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