Low Oxygen Level

My Oxygen Level was only 72%

Dear Dr. Mahler: I recently had an incident where I did not feel well and checked my O2 level to find it at 72. I felt very short of breath, extremely shallow breaths and had a stinging pain in my head. Had been reading and had gone to the restroom. I had been fine while just sitting and reading. Was on steady flow not on pulse. I have oximeter checked frequently and it is always spot on. Found and corrected the issue immediately but do not know how long I had had levels below 90 before I realized I was not feeling well. Could my organs or brain been affected? At what level does damage to the organs and or brain occur? Thanks Cindy from El Paso, TX Dear Cindy, Sorry to hear of your problem, but at least it was temporary. It is impossible to know if you had any damage to your brain or other parts of your body with the low oxygen level. However, based on your description, I believe that it is highly unlikely that you suffered any permanent effect. Our bodies are remarkable and adapt to brief periods of low oxygen by increasing breathing and increasing heart rate in an effort to compensate. It sounds like your body sent you signals of this problem as you became “very short of breath” and had a “stinging pain in the head.” Your experience is a good example of how we need to pay attention to the signals that our body sends to our brain. The challenge is to know when the message is urgent like “I can’t breathe,” and then we need to respond as you did, OR we just ignore the signal and hope that it goes away. To answer your second question, remember that the goal of breathing oxygen is to maintain an oxygen saturation level of 90 – 92%. This is measured by a machine placed on your finger called a pulse oximeter.
pulse oximeter that measures oxygen saturation

pulse oximeter that measures oxygen saturation

          Although a normal oxygen saturation level if 95% or higher, the cells in our body work fine if we are at 90%. I suspect that when your doctor ordered oxygen for you, he/she picked the flow rate (usually 1 – 4 liters/min) based on measurements from the oximeter. Usually, the nurse or technician adjusts the flow rate of oxygen at rest and during walking to achieve a saturation in the low 90s. Hopefully, your doctor, or nurse, will check you oxygen levels periodically as things can change. Finally, even though you are using oxygen, I encourage to stay as active as possible. Best wishes, Donald A. Mahler, M.D.

Donald A. Mahler, M.D. is Emeritus Professor of Medicine at Geisel School of Medicine at Dartmouth in Hanover, New Hampshire. He works as a pulmonary physician at Valley Regional Hospital in Claremont, NH, where he is Director of Respiratory Services.