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Understand hypoxia and its effects

Hypoxia is a dangerous condition that occurs when there isn't enough oxygen being delivered to the cells in the body. Hypoxia can happen with or without normal blood flow.

There are five kinds of hypoxia including:

  • Hypoxic hypoxia
  • Anemic hypoxia
  • Stagnant hypoxia
  • Metabolic hypoxia
  • Histotoxic hypoxia

Each of these has its own signs and symptoms.

Hypoxic hypoxia

This kind of hypoxia is caused due to a lack of oxygen in the blood that is reaching the tissues. It may be caused by a lack of breathing, for example.

Anemic hypoxia

This type of hypoxia occurs due to low hemoglobin levels. This makes it harder for the blood to carry oxygen.

Stagnant hypoxia

This is caused by inadequate blood flow. As the blood can't reach certain areas, they become hypoxic and potentially anoxic (lacking oxygen completely).

Metabolic hypoxia

This type of hypoxia happens when there is more demand for oxygen than the body is used to. Oxygen might be absorbed but used improperly. This is sometimes seen during cases of sepsis.

Histiotoxic hypoxia

With histiotoxic hypoxia, oxygen reaches the tissues in an adequate amount, but the tissues can't use it.

What are the signs of hypoxia?

There are many signs of hypoxia that you may recognize including:

  • Dizziness or fainting
  • Headaches
  • Elevated respiratory rate
  • Tingling, warm sensations
  • High blood pressure
  • Changes in vision
  • Shortness of breath
  • Euphoric feelings
  • Rapid heart rate
  • Confusion
  • Cyanosis (a blue tinge to the lips and extremities)

If you notice any of these signs of hypoxia, it's important to seek help right away. With treatment, it may be possible to reverse the effects, but delaying treatment can result in devastating injuries.

Irreversible damage can occur within four minutes of the onset of hypoxia when it's severe. In the most severe cases, people may suffer from comas, seizures and death. Even milder hypoxia can cause damage to the organs within the body, though it may be less pronounced.

Hypoxia can be caused by a number of common medical conditions including:

  • Asthma
  • COPD
  • Pneumonia
  • Altitude sickness
  • Hypoventilation
  • Anemia
  • Carbon monoxide poisoning
  • Edema
  • Cyanide poisoning

Your medical provider may order a number of tests to identify hypoxia. These include blood tests, oximetry tests, X-rays, CT scans, bronchoscopies and other tests to find the root cause of the hypoxia. Failing to treat hypoxia quickly has the potential to be damaging to the patient, so providers should quickly respond to any patient struggling to breathe or presenting with the above symptoms.

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