Without oxygen, human life would not exist. Much like the water you drink and the food you eat, the oxygen you inhale plays an essential role in helping your body convert nutrients into usable energy, occurring through a process called cellular respiration.
Every time you take a breath, air passes over tiny air sacs in the lungs called alveoli. Oxygen is absorbed from the air and sent to every part of the body via the bloodstream providing your body with the energy it needs to survive and thrive.
Unfortunately, there are a number of diseases and disorders that can affect the body's ability to process oxygen, transport it throughout the body, or to take in the amount of oxygen that it needs. This results in a condition called hypoxemia or low blood oxygen levels.
In the following sections, we'll take a look at what exactly causes low blood oxygen levels, what symptoms to look for, and what steps you can take to ensure that you maintain healthy blood oxygen levels throughout your daily life.
What Are The Symptoms of Low Blood Oxygen Levels?
The symptoms of low blood oxygen levels can vary widely depending on its severity. It also helps to note whether the hypoxemia is chronic (occurring over an extended period of time) or acute (occurring over a short period of time). Symptoms of acute hypoxemia may include:
- Increased heart rate
- A change in skin color
- Shortness of breath
- Increased breathing rate
Although symptoms of chronic hypoxemia can be just as destructive, they are often more difficult to detect because the body begins to compensate for decreased oxygen over time. Symptoms of chronic hypoxemia may include:
- High blood pressure in and around the lungs (pulmonary hypertension)
- Heart disease brought on by the enlargement and failure of the right side of the heart (cor pulmonale)
- Increased red blood cell count in the blood (polycythemia)
What Causes Low Blood Oxygen Levels?
Although your body naturally works to maintain oxygen levels in your blood, there are a number of conditions that can make it difficult or impossible for your body to do so.
According to an article published by The National Center for Biotechnology Information, there are several different mechanisms through which blood oxygen levels may decrease, thereby resulting in the different types of hypoxemia.
After entering the lungs, oxygen is absorbed by tiny sacs called alveoli. Capillaries surround these sacs and the oxygen is then diffused into the blood. Diffusion impairment refers to a condition that prevents the oxygen from moving into the bloodstream. Diffusion impairment is usually the result of inflammatory conditions, fibrosis, or granulomas, which can make the condition worse.
This defect is characterized by a "mismatch" between the air that travels between the lungs and the environment (ventilation), and the blood that passes through the lungs carrying oxygen (perfusion). In other words, anything that interferes with the ventilation of the lungs or the flow of blood to the capillaries can result in a mismatch and reduced oxygen in the lungs. V/Q mismatches are one of the most common causes of hypoxemia.
If there is decreased ventilation and increased perfusion, this will result in a lower V/Q ratio. This could be caused by conditions such as:
- Pulmonary edema
- Airway obstruction
- Chronic bronchitis
If there is decreased perfusion but increased ventilation, this will result in a higher V/Q ratio. This may be caused by conditions such as:
- Pulmonary embolism
This is when there is a reduced amount of air that enters the alveoli in the lungs, resulting in higher levels of carbon dioxide in the blood. Hypoventilation often occurs as a result of breathing that is too slow (bradypnea) or breathing that is too shallow (hypopnea).
The heart is responsible for providing the body with oxygen and nutrients while carrying away waste that could be harmful to it. However, when there's an abnormal communication between the right and left side of the heart, deoxygenated blood may bypass the lungs and be distributed to the rest of the body. This is known as a right-to-left shunt.
How You Can Maintain Safe Blood Oxygen Levels
Visit A Doctor
Whether you know you have low blood oxygen levels or you've experienced one or more of the symptoms above, visiting a doctor should always be your first course of action. Although shortness of breath or increased heart rate may not seem serious at first, they could be the sign of a long overdue condition that needs to be treated.
Another reason to visit a doctor immediately rather than waiting is because of the advanced diagnostic methods used to detect low blood oxygen levels. There are three common tests used to check blood oxygen levels including pulse oximetry, arterial blood gas tests, and breathing tests.
Pulse oximetry is a quick, painless, and noninvasive procedure that measures oxygen saturation of your red blood cells. Most pulse oximeters attach to the finger, but can also be attached to the forehead, feet, toes, or ears. Pulse oximeters can be purchased for in-home use. However, it's recommended that you learn from your doctor how to use it first.
Another form of blood testing, arterial blood gas analysis (ABG) can be used to determine the amount of carbon dioxide and oxygen in the blood as well as its pH level. However, unlike pulse oximetry, an ABG test requires drawing blood and should only be done by an experienced medical professional.
Get Outside And Exercise
Generally, getting out of the house and getting some fresh air is a great way to increase your blood oxygen levels. If you live in a home without any plants, you're likely living in a low-oxygen environment that could be unsafe, especially if you already have a condition that affects your blood oxygen levels.
According to the Environmental Protection Agency, we spend about 90 percent of our time indoors, and oftentimes, the air we breathe can be even more polluted than the air outdoors. Ensuring that your home is clean and ventilated properly can have an immense impact on your health.
The two most important organs for maintaining high blood oxygen levels, the heart and the lungs, are strengthened through exercise. So naturally, getting more exercise will be beneficial for you. Additionally, strong muscles are more efficient and require less oxygen to operate.
If you have a severe respiratory condition, it's important to check in with your doctor before starting an exercise routine. Conditions like Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) can't be cured with exercise, but your doctor may be able to set you up with a routine that can help alleviate some of the symptoms.
Reinforce Good Habits
Regardless of the condition you want to treat or avoid, reinforcing good habits is always a great place to start. Maintaining a healthy diet, consuming enough fluids, and getting enough sleep will all help you maintain healthy blood oxygen levels. Common COPD diets are high in protein and healthy fats, but require you to avoid a high intake of salt, certain fruits, and dairy products.
Like exercise, a healthy diet and restful sleep won't cure COPD, but they can certainly reduce the symptoms and help you live a more full and productive life. Your doctor may refer you to a dietitian or other experienced medical professional to set up a plan that works for you.
Using Oxygen as Prescribed
If you are currently undergoing oxygen therapy, be sure to use your oxygen concentrator as it was prescribed by your doctor. The purpose of oxygen therapy is to help people with conditions like COPD, asthma, lung disease, and more cope with their condition more easily. However, if you aren't using it frequently enough, you may not experience the full benefits.
If you're having trouble maintaining your blood oxygen levels while on a trip or otherwise away from home, portable oxygen concentrators may be a great option for you. There are plenty of options out there, so be sure to consult a professional before committing to anything.
What Is A Healthy Blood Oxygen Level?
Now that you know a little bit about blood oxygen levels, you're probably wondering what a healthy level actually is. A blood oxygen measurement is often referred to as the oxygen saturation level. For healthy lungs, this will fall between 80 and 100 millimeters of mercury (mm Hg).
If you had a pulse oximetry reading, it should be between 95 and 100 percent. However, when you're living with a respiratory disease like COPD, anything between 88% and 92%, is still considered safe and average.
Anything below these results is considered hypoxemia and could be a sign of a progressive disorder. If you experience any drops or fluctuations in your blood oxygen levels, you should consult your doctor immediately.
Although low blood oxygen levels could have serious implications, the sooner you act, the better chance you will have to reverse them. It’s normal to have an occasional cough or shortness of breath, but if the issues persist, you should take action sooner rather than later.
Your doctor will be able to help you pinpoint exactly what is causing your symptoms, diagnose your condition, and help you set up a plan to improve your blood oxygen levels. And if you already have a respiratory condition like COPD, never hesitate to speak with a professional about the issues you're facing.