How to tell when your oxygen level is low?

Written by irene a. blake
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Causes of low oxygen levels in the blood, hypoxaemia, vary greatly from carbon monoxide, chemical and/or irritant exposures filling the lungs and blocking their ability to absorb the oxygen needed for healthy cell function to a wide range of medical conditions that obstruct air flow and interfere with the respiratory system or block blood flow and interfere with the circulatory system. Without enough oxygen, the body breaks down and hypoxaemia can even cause organ and tissue harm/failure or death. You can tell if your oxygen level is low through a few tests and simple observations.

Skill level:

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Things you need

  • Blood test
  • Oximeter

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  1. 1

    Ask your doctor for an arterial blood gas (ABG), a blood test to confirm the oxygen and carbon dioxide concentrations in your blood.

  2. 2

    Stand up, sit down and lie flat to test for low oxygen levels. If you experience shortness of breath, dizziness or confusion while in any or all of these positions, you likely have low blood oxygen levels.

  3. 3

    Review your exercise routine. If you have hypoxaemia during or after exercise, you will find that you're suddenly slower when exercising, less coordinated and/or fatigued. As these symptoms could result from severe respiratory or circulatory issues, stop your routine and address your concerns with your doctor. In addition, review your sleep schedule/sleep disturbances (sudden waking, snoring, dry mouth or shortness of breath) and compare to any new onsets of fatigue to see if a correlation exists. If it does, you may have reduced flow of oxygen to the lungs causing temporary breathing interruptions (sleep apnoea) from an airway obstruction, narrow throat, or other health condition.

  4. 4

    Check your finger and toe nails and beds and your lips for a blue to purplish discolouration (cyanosis) if you experience any other symptoms of hypoxaemia or have a bluish tint to your skin. Cyanosis occurs when your blood oxygen level drops causing blood discolouration that appears blue or purplish through the skin. For example, think of a child who holds her breath as part of a competition with other children. She stops the flow of air into her lungs and the resulting blood oxygen loss causes her blood to turn from bright red (normal) to dark red (low) and her lips and mouth change to blue/purple or, in severe cases, turn white.

  5. 5

    Test your blood oxygen saturation and pulse with a pulse oximeter. An oximeter sends two beams of light through a fingertip or ear lobe to determine the colour of your blood---bright red colour (normal if 95 to 100 per cent at sea level), dark red (low if under 90 or severe under 80).

Tips and warnings

  • Always see your doctor if you have undiagnosed shortness of breath during any activity and/or seek immediate emergency attention if you have symptoms of hypoxaemia with white lips as you may have a serious health condition.

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