What is oxygen deficiency and how to prevent it?

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Déficit oxígeno
Soruce: Canva

In today’s age of fast-paced lifestyles and increasing health concerns, the concept of “oxygen deficiency” has become particularly relevant. This phenomenon, although it may seem distant, affects a broad spectrum of the population, directly impacting quality of life and general well-being. Addressing its meaning, causes, and prevention strategies is essential to promote a healthy and conscious lifestyle.

What is oxygen deficiency?

The concept leaves little room for doubt, but its definition needs to be clarified. Oxygen deficiency, technically known as hypoxia, refers to the condition in which the body or a part of the body receives an insufficient amount of oxygen. Oxygen is vital for cellular metabolism and proper tissue function. Without it, our cells cannot produce the energy needed to sustain life.

These are the most common causes

Oxygen deficiency, or hypoxia, can arise from a multiplicity of factors, each differently affecting the body’s ability to obtain and use oxygen effectively. These causes fall into several categories, including environmental, physiological, and related to specific health conditions.

One of the most recognised factors is altitude. As one ascends above sea level, atmospheric pressure decreases, which reduces the amount of oxygen available in the air. This phenomenon explains why people have difficulty breathing at high altitudes. Air pollution also plays a significant role; pollutants reduce the quality of breathable air, limiting the amount of oxygen reaching the blood.

Déficit oxígeno
Source: Canva

Another aspect is physiological limitations, such as reduced ability of the lungs to expand (due to diseases such as pulmonary fibrosis) or impaired cardiac function, directly affect oxygenation. In addition, conditions affecting the blood, such as anaemia, reduce the ability to carry oxygen, as less haemoglobin is available to bind oxygen.

In addition, chronic obstructive pulmonary diseases (COPD), including chronic bronchitis and emphysema, impede efficient airflow to and from the lungs, reducing oxygenation. Sleep apnoea, a disorder in which breathing stops intermittently during sleep, can also cause nocturnal hypoxia. Cardiovascular diseases, such as heart failure, prevent the heart from pumping oxygenated blood efficiently through the body.

Another, but less common, cause is carbon monoxide poisoning. Carbon monoxide binds to haemoglobin with greater affinity than oxygen, displacing it and reducing the amount of oxygen carried in the blood. Drowning and suffocation also result in direct oxygen deprivation, as do certain sports or work practices without proper protective equipment in oxygen-poor environments.

Symptoms and warning signs

Early recognition of the symptoms associated with oxygen deficiency is essential to prevent serious complications. In addition to shortness of breath, cyanosis and fatigue, there are other less obvious but equally important signs.

Tachycardia, or rapid heart rate, is a response of the body trying to compensate for the lack of oxygen by pumping blood faster in an effort to distribute the available oxygen more efficiently. Other symptoms include persistent headaches, dizziness or lightheadedness, and decreased physical performance, symptoms that are often overlooked or mistakenly attributed to other, less critical causes.

It is crucial to watch for neurological symptoms as well, such as confusion, disorientation or changes in consciousness. These may indicate severe hypoxia, directly affecting brain function due to lack of oxygen.

In children, unusual irritability or lethargy may be indicative of hypoxia. The occurrence of any of these symptoms, especially in combination, requires immediate medical evaluation to determine the underlying cause and begin appropriate treatment. Ignoring these signs leads to irreversible organ damage, emphasising the importance of early detection and action.

déficit oxígeno
Source: Canva

How do I know if I am suffering from oxygen deficiency?

The process of diagnosing oxygen deficiency begins with a detailed clinical evaluation, including a complete medical history and physical examination. The physician will inquire about specific symptoms, history of respiratory or cardiac disease, exposure to high altitude environments, and potential exposure to pollutants or toxins. During the physical examination, special attention will be paid to respiratory rate, the presence of abnormal lung sounds, and observation for signs of cyanosis. This initial stage is crucial to guide further diagnostic testing and to rule out other conditions that may present with similar symptoms.

Based on the initial assessment, specific tests may be ordered to confirm the diagnosis and determine the severity of the oxygen deficiency. Pulse oximetry is a non-invasive test that measures oxygen saturation in the blood through a sensor placed on the finger, providing a quick estimate of oxygenation.

For a more accurate assessment, arterial blood gases directly measure oxygen and carbon dioxide levels in arterial blood, in addition to blood pH, providing a detailed picture of the patient’s respiratory and metabolic status. These tests are essential to establish an appropriate treatment plan and to monitor the response to treatment in patients with hypoxia.

Available treatments and prevention strategies

Treatment will depend on the different situations of the individual. In acute hypoxia situations, administration of supplemental oxygen is an immediate measure. For chronic conditions, the approach may include medications to improve lung or cardiac function, as well as respiratory rehabilitation therapies. Surgical intervention is necessary in severe cases.

Preventing oxygen deficiency involves a combination of healthy practices and proactive measures. Maintaining an active lifestyle, avoiding smoking, and properly managing chronic conditions are fundamental steps. In addition, in high altitude environments, gradual acclimatisation is recommended to allow the body to adjust to the reduced oxygen levels.

Importance of adequate oxygenation

Adequate oxygenation is essential not only for survival, but for maintaining a high quality of life. Oxygen is indispensable in numerous biological processes, including cellular energy production, brain function, and tissue repair. A deficiency in this vital element can have devastating effects on physical and mental health.

One study that validates the importance of addressing and preventing oxygen deficiency is “Global, regional, and national incidence, prevalence, and years lived with disability for 354 diseases and injuries for 195 countries and territories, 1990-2017: a systematic analysis for the Global Burden of Disease Study 2017”. Conducted by the GBD 2017 Disease and Injury Incidence and Prevalence Collaborators, this 2018 study, conducted under the auspices of the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) at the University of Washington, provides a comprehensive overview of global disease incidence and prevalence. It highlights, among others, conditions that lead to oxygen deficiency, such as COPD, underlining the importance of prevention and proper management of these diseases to reduce their impact on global health.

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