You might learn you have hypoxemia when you see a doctor for shortness of breath or another breathing-related problem. Or you might share the results of an at-home pulse oximetry test with your doctor.

If you use a pulse oximeter at home, be aware of factors that can make the results less accurate:

  • Poor circulation.
  • Black or brownskin color.
  • Skin thickness or temperature.
  • Tobacco use.
  • Fingernail polish.

If you have hypoxemia, the next step is to figure out its cause.

Hypoxemia can be a sign of problems such as:

  • Less oxygen in the air you breathe, such as at high altitudes.
  • Breathing that's too slow or shallow to meet the lungs' need for oxygen.
  • Either not enough blood flow to the lungs or not enough oxygen to the lungs.
  • Trouble with oxygen getting into the bloodstream and the waste gas carbon dioxide getting out.
  • A problem with the way blood flows in the heart.
  • Unusual changes in the protein called hemoglobin, which carries oxygen in red blood cells.

Causes of hypoxemia that are related to problems with blood or blood flow include:

  1. Anemia — a condition in which the body doesn't get oxygen due to a lack of healthy red blood cells.
  2. Congenital heart defects in children — heart conditions that children were born with.
  3. Congenital heart disease in adults — heart problems that adults were born with.

Breathing conditions that can lead to hypoxemia include:

  1. ARDS (acute respiratory distress syndrome) — a lack of air due to a buildup of fluid in the lungs.
  2. Asthma — a long-term condition that affects airways in the lungs.
  3. COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease) — the blanket term for a group of diseases that block airflow from the lungs — including emphysema.
  4. Interstitial lung disease — the blanket term for a large group of conditions that scar the lungs.
  5. Pneumonia — an infection in one or both lungs.
  6. Pneumothorax — collapsed lung.
  7. Pulmonary edema — excess fluid in the lungs.
  8. Pulmonary embolism — a blood clot in an artery in the lung.
  9. Pulmonary fibrosis — a disease that happens when lung tissue becomes damaged and scarred.
  10. Sleep apnea — a condition in which breathing stops and starts many times during sleep.

Some medicines that can cause slow, shallow breathing can lead to hypoxemia. These include certain opioid pain relievers and medicines that prevent pain during surgery and other procedures, called anesthetics.

Causes shown here are commonly associated with this symptom. Work with your doctor or other health care professional for an accurate diagnosis.

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March 24, 2023