A health condition in which your body does not have enough oxygen is called hypoxia and it can be life-threatening. The most common symptoms are restlessness, breathing problems, rapid heart rate, and bluish skin. Hypoxia is usually provoked by certain chronic heart and lung diseases. However, if you experience any hypoxia symptoms, immediately call 911 or go to the nearest emergency room (ER).

What is Hypoxia?

When an individual breathes it takes oxygen into the lungs. Thereafter, it travels through airways into small sacks (alveoli). At this point, blood takes oxygen in small vessels close to the alveoli (capillaries), and then it reaches organs and tissues. For this process, both are important airflow and blood flow. That’s why heart and lung disease increases the risk of hypoxia. A person who experiences hypoxia is called hypoxic.

What is The Difference between Hypoxia and Hypoxemia?

While some people may use these terms interchangeably, they are not the same. These conditions both mean a lack of oxygen but in different parts of the body. Therefore, hypoxia means you have low levels of oxygen in the tissues but hypoxemia means reduced levels of oxygen in the blood.

Who Does Hypoxia Impact?

There are different health conditions that can provoke hypoxia. For example COPD, emphysema, and asthma. However, certain infections could also increase your risk of hypoxia including influenza, COVID-19, pneumonia, and others. Consult with your physician for more details.


You should consider the following symptoms and if experience any of them, contact your doctor immediately or go to the ER. Examples include:

  • Restlessness
  • Headaches
  • Confusion
  • Anxiety
  • Tachycardia (rapid heart rate)
  • Tachypnea (rapid breathing)
  • Breathing problems or shortness of breath (dyspnea)

Check below some symptoms caused by severe hypoxia:

  • Bradycardia (slow heart rate)
  • Extreme restlessness
  • Cyanosis (bluish skin)


This condition usually occurs due to certain heart or lung conditions that restrict air or blood flow. Check below some examples:

  • Emphysema
  • Congenital heart defects
  • Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)
  • Bronchitis
  • Asthma
  • Anemia
  • Congestive heart failure
  • Pneumonia (viral and bacterial)
  • Pneumothorax
  • Pulmonary edema (fluid on the lung)
  • Sleep apnea
  • Pulmonary embolism (blood clot in the lung)
  • Pulmonary fibrosis (lung scarring)
  • Pulmonary hypertension

Hypoxia Types

If the following steps do not occur, hypoxia usually happens. Examples include:

  • Enough oxygen in the breathed air.
  • Healthy lung, heart, and circulatory functions.
  • Adequate amount of red blood cells.
  • Tissue cells should be able to use oxygen.

Check below 4 types of hypoxia:

Histotoxic Hypoxia

This type occurs when your body is not capable of using oxygen properly and it is usually due to cyanide poisoning.

Anemic Hypoxia

This type of hypoxia happens usually due to low red blood cell count. These blood cells help to carry oxygen from the lungs to other tissues and organs. As a result, if your body does not produce enough red blood cells or makes them deformed, a person may become anemic.

Circulatory Hypoxia

When the heart does not pump enough blood or a blockage in a blood vessel happens is called circulatory hypoxia. However, your blood has plenty of oxygen but it cannot get to organs and tissues. This hypoxia type is also called stagnant hypoxia or ischemic hypoxia. Furthermore, blood clots and congestive heart failure can elevate your risk of circulatory hypoxia.

Hypoxemic Hypoxia

It occurs when you have decreased oxygen levels in the blood, which is the most common cause of hypoxia. Congenital heart defects, medicines that slow your breathing, lung or heart disease can provoke hypoxemia.


To diagnose this condition doctors will perform a physical examination, which includes a listening of your heart and lungs. Additionally, healthcare providers may verify your skin, nails, and lips if they are bluish. Check below some tests that help to confirm hypoxia:

  • Pulse Oximetry – Your physician will place a sensor over your finger that will help to determine the amount of oxygen in the blood.
  • Arterial Blood Gas Test (ABG) – Helps to measure blood oxygen levels by drawing blood from the wrist, arm, or groin.
  • Pulmonary Function Test (PFT) – This test involves a machine with a tube that helps to verify how your lungs work.
  • Imaging – X-rays, CT scans, and V/Q scans are used to get images of the internal organs.
  • Six-minute Walk Test (6MWT) – This test involves how far you can walk on a flat surface for 6 minutes. As a result, your physician may evaluate your heart and lung function.


Commonly, the treatment is different among people because it depends on the cause, the severity of hypoxia, your age, weight, and others. Check below some treatment options:

  • Inhaled steroids are used to treat asthma or other lung conditions.
  • Diuretics (medicines that help to get rid of excess lung fluid)
  • Continuous positive airway pressure mask (CPAP) to treat sleep apnea.
  • BiPAP is a BiLevel positive airway pressure used in the treatment of COPD and some sleep apnea types.
  • In severe cases (such as chronic hypoxia) your doctor gives you an oxygen delivery device. It helps to increase the amount of oxygen in your lungs and down to the alveoli.
  • In case you experience severe acute hypoxia, you may need mechanical ventilation in a hospital.

For more details, talk with your physician.


By managing existing health conditions and reducing oxygen levels, you can prevent this hypoxia. Thus, if you suspect you have hypoxia, you should visit a doctor for diagnosis and treatment of the underlying conditions.

Frequently Asked Questions

When should I go to the emergency room (ER)?

If you experience sudden changes in your awareness or behavior (including restlessness, confusion, or change in consciousness), it is recommended to go to the ER.

What happens to a person with hypoxia?

This is a health condition in which your body is not able to carry oxygen to organs and other tissues. Confusion, restlessness, rapid breathing, bluish skin, lips, or nails are the common symptoms of this health condition. The primary causes of hypoxia are heart and lung diseases. If left untreated hypoxia can be life-threatening. Discuss with your healthcare professional for additional information.

What is the best treatment for hypoxia?

Usually, receiving extra oxygen is used to treat this condition. This treatment is called oxygen therapy or supplemental oxygen. Ask your healthcare professional if you have any questions.

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