Low Oxygen Symptoms: Signs You May Not Be Getting Enough Oxygen

Oxygen is one of the most abundant elements in the universe. It’s a bit ironic, then, that people with breathing problems can’t seem to get enough of it. The body needs a certain amount of circulating oxygen in the blood at all times to effectively nourish the cells, tissues and organs. When blood oxygen levels drop below normal, a condition known as hypoxemia may occur.

Hypoxemia can be acute, occurring suddenly because of an emergency situation, or chronic, taking place over time because of a long-term health condition like COPD.  Hypoxemia is the main reason that people with COPD are prescribed supplemental oxygen. But many people with COPD are unaware that they’re hypoxemic and, unless prompted to do so for another reason, they don’t immediately seek medical attention. This is unfortunate, because hypoxemia associated with COPD contributes to a reduced quality of life, impaired skeletal muscle function, decreased exercise tolerance and an increased risk of death.1 If you or a loved one have COPD or another chronic illness that puts you at greater risk for hypoxemia, it’s important that you’re able to recognize signs and symptoms of lack of oxygen so that appropriate action can be taken if, or when, it occurs.

Symptoms of Low Oxygen in Blood (Hypoxemia)

Low oxygen symptoms of hypoxemia vary depending upon its severity. If you or a loved one experience any of the symptoms listed below, contact a health care provider as soon as possible:

  • Confusion
  • A sense of euphoria
  • Restlessness
  • Headache
  • Shortness of breath
  • Rapid breathing
  • Dizziness, lightheadedness and/or fainting spells
  • Lack of coordination
  • Rapid heart rate
  • Elevated blood pressure
  • Visual disturbances
  • A bluish tint to the lips, earlobes, and/or nail beds (cyanosis)
  • Elevated red blood cell count or polycythemia (if a long-term problem)


Monitoring Oxygen Levels at Home

The best way to detect hypoxemia is through arterial blood gases (ABGs), however this is generally not possible in the home setting unless you have a doctor’s order for a home care nurse or respiratory therapist. Although it should not be used to replace ABGs in the initial diagnosis of lung disease and the evaluation for long-term oxygen therapy (LTOT), a pulse oximetry monitor plays an important role in the home monitoring of patients with lung disease,2 whether they’re using supplemental oxygen, or not. In fact, along with blood pressure, pulse, respirations and temperature, oxygen saturation is now considered to be the fifth vital sign in many institutions.3

A pulse oximeter is a non-invasive device that measures the oxygen saturation of hemoglobin in the blood. Because it is able to rapidly detect changes in oxygen saturation, it can provide a warning to patients and health care providers alike of impending or existing hypoxemia.3

Normal oxygen saturation levels run between 95% and 100%, but it’s typical for patients with lung disease to run lower. Nonetheless, once oxygen saturation levels drop consistently to 88% and below at rest, a patient should be evaluated for supplemental oxygen therapy.4

What to Do if Oxygen Saturation Levels are Low

If you’re not already using supplemental oxygen and you’re experiencing symptoms of hypoxemia and/or low oxygen saturation levels, don’t wait; contact your health care provider immediately to see about being evaluated for LTOT. Oxygen therapy is appropriate for many conditions that cause hypoxemia, COPD included.

If you are a current user of supplemental oxygen and experiencing symptoms of hypoxemia and/or low oxygen saturation levels, troubleshoot your oxygen equipment to make sure it’s working correctly. If troubleshooting doesn’t resolve the issue, contact your health care provider; you may need an adjustment in your oxygen dose or your current course of treatment.


Author: Deborah Leader RN, BSN, PHN


1Kent, Brian D., et. al. Hypoxemia in patients with COPD: cause effects and disease progression. Int J Chron Obstruct Pulmon Dis. 2011; 6: 199–208. Published online 2011 March 14. doi:  10.2147/COPD.S10611.
2Pierson, DJ. Pulse oximetry versus arterial blood gas specimens in long-term oxygen therapy. Lung. 1990;168 Suppl:782-8.
3International COPD Coalition. Clinical Use of Pulse Oximetry. Pocket Reference. 2010.
4WebMD. COPD and Oxygen Therapy Guidelines: When is it Necessary? Updated 2013.

18 thoughts on “Low Oxygen Symptoms: Signs You May Not Be Getting Enough Oxygen”

  1. britteney says:

    i get dizzy and short of breath

    1. Andy says:

      I have exact same problem. Got any answers?

      1. Inogen Inogen says:

        Hi Andy & Britteney, Since we are not your primary care doctor we can not give you medical advice. There are a variety of reasons why you might feel dizzy or short of breath. We recommend that you reach out to your primary care doctor so that he or she may evaluate you.

  2. glinda emery says:

    my muscles in my legs arms fingers start to cramp is this normal

  3. Ann Roy Rogers says:

    i just tested my oxygen tester and I was at 78 and had a headache I did not have my oxygen on but needed to know how do you know when it is getting to low. I have emphysema fibrosis but do not know the symptoms on how to tell if I am low and do not have my meter with me

  4. bob says:

    does smoking make your blood oxygen level drop ?

    1. Web Admin Web Admin says:

      Please read our blog post about Safe Oxygen Levels. Long-term smokers frequently do have low oxygen saturation levels. The blog post will give you insight into oxygen levels overall. – http://www.inogen.com/blog/safe-oxygen-levels/

    2. Raajith says:

      yes, our lungs cant work on for cent percent output, afterall smoking causes many respiratory problems and intercept with the oxygen intake process.

  5. Rachel Dawson says:

    Please could I have an information kit sent to me, as my mother has been told she has low oxygen levels in her blood yesterday, and I need to know all I can to help her

    1. Web Admin Web Admin says:

      Hi Rachel, Thank you for your interest. A Sales Representative will contact you shortly via email.

  6. marlene says:

    I too would appreciate an information kit… I was told I have low oxygen levels at night 21.9% of my sleep time is below 90% .

    1. Web Admin Web Admin says:

      Hi Marlene, Thank you for your interest. A Sales Representative will contact you shortly via email.

  7. Muz says:

    I've been told I have low oxygen levels in my blood when I was sent to the cardio repertory department. I am due surgery for herniated discs in my neck in a few weeks. What does this all mean & should I be worried about it??

    1. Web Admin Web Admin says:

      Hi Muz, Since we are not your primary care doctor, we cannot give you medical advice. We recommend you reach out to your primary care doctor and consult with them.

  8. cynthia lee says:

    whats happening when I take in air but not getting it all out?

    1. Inogen Inogen says:

      Hi Cynthia, I think what you're asking is what happens to the oxygen that is inhaled but not released when you exhale. Oxygen helps move nutrients through your bloodstream. The oxygen level in your blood can be measured using a blood test known as an arterial blood gas (ABG) study. For more information on ABG studies, please visit: http://www.inogen.com/blog/normal-oxygen-levels/

  9. Jacqueline Deans says:

    Could you please send me more information on low blood oxygen. I have been told recently I have a low count and I have some of the systems.

    1. Inogen Inogen says:

      Hi Jacqueline, Please fill out the form on our home page: http://www.inogen.com/ and we'll answer any questions you may have on oxygen therapy.

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