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Hypoxia Vs. Hypoxemia: What Are The Differences?

Hypoxia and hypoxemia are life-threatening conditions that often occur at altitude. Learn from the altitude experts about these conditions, the differences in symptoms and how they’re treated.
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Here at Summit Oxygen, we’re one of the nation's top medical oxygen suppliers, and we love altitude. It’s where you get to play in the mountains and experience life a little more elevated. But altitude brings with it it’s own set of issues, many of which involve medical complications surrounding oxygen and the body’s ability to maintain adequate supplies.

Two common medical issues people face at altitude are hypoxia and hypoxemia. The difference between hypoxia and hypoxemia can be subtle yet critical to understand correctly.

Difference Between Hypoxemia And Hypoxia

What Is Hypoxemia?

Hypoxemia is a specific medical condition where a patient’s blood does not carry adequate oxygen to the body’s tissues.

What Is Hypoxia?

Hypoxia is a general term to describe a medical condition where there is not enough oxygen getting to your tissues. Hypoxemia can cause hypoxia, as hypoxemia leads to low tissues oxygen levels.

So while both hypoxia and hypoxemia describe issues with oxygen reaching body tissue, these are two distinct conditions. One main difference between hypoxemia and hypoxia is that hypoxemia can cause hypoxia, and thus the hypoxemia and hypoxia are often referred to as hypoxia.

Hypoxemia And Hypoxia: Common Symptoms

Both hypoxemia and hypoxia can share a list of common symptoms which include:

  • Changes in skin color, ranging from blue to cherry red 
  • Confusion
  • Cough
  • Fast heart rate
  • Rapid breathing
  • Shortness of breath
  • Slow heart rate
  • Sweating
  • Wheezing

Difference Between Hypoxemia And Hypoxia Symptoms

While hypoxemia and hypoxia share a common list of symptoms, they also share several differences.

Patients With Hypoxia May Experience:

  • Restlessness
  • Anxiety
  • Headaches
  • Increased blood pressure
  • Apnea
  • Tachycardia
  • Hypotension
  • Irregular ventricular contractions
  • Coma (extreme cases)

Patients With Hypoxemia May Experience:

  • Severe headaches
  • Seizures

Main Causes Of Hypoxia And Hypoxemia

The main causes of hypoxemia and hypoxia range from pre-existing medical conditions to the sudden onset of these conditions due to high altitude.

  • Asthma is one of the most common causes of hypoxemia and hypoxia.
  • Lung diseases (examples include chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), emphysema, bronchitis, pneumonia, and pulmonary edema)
  • Pain medicines, such as opioids, that inhibit normal breathing
  • Heart problems
  • Anemia

Hypoxia And Hypoxemia Treatment Methods

Because hypoxemia and hypoxia are treated so differently, it is critical to understand the differences between the two so that patients receive proper treatment and how to increase blood oxygen levels.

Hypoxia Treatment

Hypoxia can become a life-threatening condition within moments, thus it should be immediately and aggressively treated. 

Mild hypoxia treatment methods involve simply allowing the patient to rest and recuperate, encouraging deep, slow breaths and making the patient as comfortable as possible. 

As hypoxia escalates in severity, portable oxygen concentrators may be employed in order to increase the oxygen reaching patients’ tissues.

The most aggressive form of hypoxia therapy involves an immediate medical evacuation, by air if possible, to the nearest hyperbaric chamber where patients are administered oxygen at above-atmospheric levels.

Hypoxemia Treatment

Remember, hypoxemia can lead to hypoxia, and it is important to treat as early as possible.

Patients experiencing mild hypoxemia are advised to lie flat on the ground, as that improves oxygen levels in the body. Patients may be put on a CPAP machine to increase blood oxygen levels, and patients are administered packed red blood cells in more severe cases hypoxemia treatments.

Hypoxia Oxygen Saturation: Steps To Treat Hypoxemia And Hypoxia

Oxygen levels within the body are critical to understand when treating hypoxia, and treatment will reflect the severity of the condition.

Why Does Drinking Water Help With Altitude Sickness?

Drinking water is critical when you’re at high altitudes. While drinking water doesn’t necessarily alleviate the symptoms of altitude sickness, proper hydration helps your body better handle the effects of altitude. It also helps you identify if your altitude sickness is progressing; sometimes when people are dehydrated, they attribute their symptoms of worsening altitude sickness to dehydration, and proper hydration allows you to accurately assess whether or not you’re at risk for hypoxemia or hypoxia.

Oxygen Therapy: A First Line Of Defense Against Hypoxia

Oxygen therapy is the first major line of defense in treating hypoxia or hypoxemia, and having a portable oxygen concentrator immediately available can be the difference between life and death.

It is critical to plan ahead and prepare for anything when you head to the mountains. Summit Oxygen Inc. is one of the nation’s top medical oxygen suppliers and offers oxygen equipment rentals and sales to help you prepare for anything. 

We’re your friends in the mountains, so call us today!