Photo of woman being given oxygen

Your brain, like all other organs in your body, needs oxygen to survive. The brain’s cells are very sensitive to oxygen, and if deprived of it for even five minutes, brain cells begin to die. This is a condition known as hypoxia (pronounced HI-pox-ee-ah). During hypoxia, the body’s organs — most commonly, the brain — are denied oxygen but retain adequate blood flow. When this happens to the brain, it can rapidly lead to brain damage, coma, seizures, and brain death.

Hypoxia is a medical emergency, and every second counts. Oxygen must reach the brain within minutes to improve the patient’s chances of recovery.

Hypoxia is sometimes called cerebral hypoxia or hypoxic encephalopathy. In mild cases, the individual may appear inattentive; have poor judgment, memory loss, or a decrease in motor skills. If hypoxia has lasted for more than a few minutes, the individual will become unresponsive and the brain’s reflexes will stop, halting breathing and the pupils’ reaction to light.

Hypoxia typically occurs unexpectedly as a result of:

  • Asphyxiation caused by smoke inhalation
  • Carbon monoxide (CO) poisoning
  • Cardiac arrest
  • Choking
  • Compression of the trachea
  • Compression of the umbilical cord during birth
  • Complications from anesthesia
  • Diseases that paralyze the respiratory muscles
  • Drowning
  • Drug overdose
  • Head trauma
  • High altitudes
  • Severe asthma
  • Strangling
  • Suffocation
  • Very low blood pressure

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