Hypoxemia occurs when your blood does not have enough oxygen. The body cannot work well when it does not have enough oxygen because every part of your body needs oxygen. Oxygen travels to all parts of the body through your blood. Hypoxemia can develop suddenly or can come on slowly.


  • Long-term (chronic) lung diseases (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease [COPD], pulmonary fibrosis, or interstitial lung disease). 

  • A condition in which there is a pause in your breathing (sleep apnea).

  • Fluid buildup in your lungs (pulmonary edema). 

  • Lung infection (pneumonia).

  • Lung or throat cancer.

  • Certain diseases that affect nerves or muscles.

  • A collapsed lung (pneumothorax).

  • A blood clot in the lungs (pulmonary embolus).

  • Low levels of red blood cells (anemia).

  • Poor circulation. 

  • Slow or shallow breathing (hypoventilation). 

  • Certain medicines.

  • High altitudes.

  • Toxic chemicals and gases.


Symptoms vary greatly and depend on the cause. How fast the hypoxemia develops matters, too. Symptoms are often very clear when it comes on quickly. It can be hard to notice symptoms when hypoxemia develops very slowly. Symptoms can include:

  • Shortness of breath (dyspnea).

  • Bluish color of the skin, lips, or nail beds.

  • Breathing that is fast, noisy, or shallow.

  • A fast heartbeat.

  • Feeling tired or sleepy.

  • Being confused or feeling anxious.


To decide if you have hypoxemia, your caregiver may perform:

  • A physical exam.

  • Blood tests.

  • A pulse oximetry. A sensor will be put on your finger, toe, or earlobe to measure the percent of oxygen in your blood.

  • Imaging tests (X-rays, CT scans).

  • An electrocardiogram (EKG).

  • An echocardiogram.


Treatment depends on what is causing your condition. You may be put on oxygen therapy which gives you extra oxygen. Oxygen therapy may last just until the cause can be found and then other treatment would begin. For some people, however, oxygen is needed for a long time.


What you need to do at home will vary from person to person. It will depend on your treatment plan, but everyone with hypoxemia should follow these directions.

  • Take all medicines directed by your caregiver. Only take medicines that are approved by your caregiver.

  • Follow oxygen safety measures.

  • Always have a backup supply of oxygen.

  • Do not smoke around oxygen.

  • Handle the oxygen tanks carefully and as instructed.

  • If you smoke, quit. Stay away from people who smoke.

  • Eat a healthy diet. Try eating more times a day, but eat less each time.

  • Prevent infections by getting routine vaccinations, avoiding those who are ill, and following good hygiene practices.

  • Get plenty of sleep.

  • Look for ways to save your energy.

  • Plan activities for the time of day when your energy level is high.

  • Arrange for help with daily activities as needed.

  • Pay attention to your mental health. Manage stress and get help if you feel anxious or depressed.

  • Keep all follow-up appointments with your caregivers.


  • You have any questions or concerns about your oxygen therapy.

  • You have questions about your treatment.

  • You still have trouble breathing.

  • You become short of breath when you exercise.

  • You are tired when you wake up.

  • You have a headache when you wake up.


  • Your breathing gets worse.

  • You have shortness of breath with normal activity.

  • You have a bluish color of the skin, lips, or nail beds.

  • You feel very tired.

  • You become confused.

  • You cough up dark mucus.

  • You have chest pain.

  • You have a fever.