Oxygen deprivation, also known as hypoxia, is a condition whereby the body is deprived of its oxygen supply. Variations in how much oxygen you have in your body are normal, such as when you do strenuous exercise, but it’s when there is a difference between oxygen demand and supply that oxygen deprivation becomes an issue.
Symptoms of Oxygen Deprivation
The symptoms of oxygen deprivation do depend on how quickly the oxygen deprivation occurred, as well as the circumstances that caused it. Some of the symptoms are listed below:
- In gradual oxygen deprivation, you may experience headaches that are long-lasting, fatigue of the muscles, shortness of breath and difficulty in breathing, feelings of nausea and feelings of euphoria
- In rapid oxygen deprivation, where deprivation is very sudden, symptoms include a blue tinge to the skin, rapid deterioration in levels of consciousness, seizures or fitting, coma and priapism, whereby the penis or clitoris is erect and stays that way for a number of hours. Death can also occur as a result of oxygen deprivation.
Causes of Oxygen Deprivation
One of the most common causes of oxygen deprivation is being at a high altitude, in the case of mountaineers or those travelling to high levels that they are not used to. Oxygen deprivation related to high altitude is potentially fatal. Other causes of oxygen deprivation are listed below:
- Deep-sea diving – breathing in gasses that have a relatively low amount of oxygen in them can cause oxygen deprivation
- Hypoventilation, whereby a person cannot breathe properly, possibly due to panic attack or through respiratory arrest can cause oxygen deprivation, with symptoms such as numbness and tingling in the extremities
- Taking drugs, such as opiates
- Shunts in the heart, meaning blood meant for the pulmonary system is not ventilated with oxygen
- Pulmonary embolism
- Having anaesthesia
- Carbon monoxide poisoning
- Cyanide toxicity
Because oxygen deprivation is potentially fatal, if you experience any of the side effects listed above you should seek immediate medical attention.
How is Oxygen Deprivation Treated?
That depends on what was causing the deprivation in the first place. If you’re at a high altitude, your body will automatically adjust to the oxygen levels, although your personal oxygen levels will not be the same as normal. On particularly high climbs, taking an oxygen tank may be the only way to make sure that your oxygen levels are at a safe level.
In cases of oxygen deprivation through a medical condition, if the oxygen deprivation is severe and is causing symptoms seen in the case of rapid oxygen deprivation, urgent medical attention should be sought. You’ll be given oxygen through an oxygen bag or cylinder, which will be delivered to you through a mask. If you have a condition that causes you to be frequently oxygen deprived, you may have oxygen equipment at home in order to treat yourself.
For those consistently working at high altitudes, such as astronomers, oxygen concentrators are available. These are oxygen equipment that can effectively supply oxygen through an air-conditioning system, relatively easily and cheaply.
If an individual is suffering with oxygen deprivation due to sleep apnea, it is vital that person gets treatment for the apnea with a CPAP or BiPAP device. Sleep apnea causes oxygen deprivation due to the airways being closed or obstructed, or there being a dysfunction in the part of the brain that regulates breathing. Long term untreated sleep apnea can cause many problems, including memory problems, cognitive problems, excessive daytime sleepiness and other medical problems. Sleep apnea can also result in death, directly as a result of being unable to breathe, and through other medical problems, so it’s vitally important that you see a doctor if you think that you’re suffering from sleep apnea.