How Long With Low Oxygen?

We frequently measure oxygen levels on people of all ages here in our mountain clinics. We order nighttime oximetry and sleep studies and analyze hundreds of data points reflecting heart rate and oxygen levels over time. When we see someone with a low oxygen in clinic, there may be no way of knowing if they have been hypoxic for hours, days, weeks unless they have an illness with an abrupt onset, like influenza or pneumonia or they just returned from sea level. Babies during the first weeks may have low oxygen with no symptoms, since they are accustomed to this in the womb where oxygen saturations run 40-60 %.

A recent article in the Journal of the American Medical Association studied extremely premature babies at 18 months for adverse outcomes including vision, hearing, cognition, motor, and language. They correlated the degree of disability with the length of time the child was hypoxic during the first few months. One minute of hypoxia seemed to be the cut-off. Now this doesn’t tell us how low or how many but it may be a helpful guide when watching someone’s oxygen or analyzing a sleep study. Shorter episodes may be insignificant long term.

This is a complex article and the children with the poorer outcomes had more episodes of hypoxia at older ages- 9-10 weeks after birth. This could mean that the insult to the brain was contributing to the hypoxic episodes as well as the deficits.