We all know that oxygen is in the air all around us, and when we breathe it in, it helps us to survive. But why exactly do we need oxygen and how do we acquire it? What role does it play in our bodies? And what happens if we obtain too little oxygen? We’ve covered it all in the article below.
How we acquire oxygen
We take in oxygen through the air we breathe in via our mouth or nose. This air moves down the windpipe, which splits into separate bronchi, each one leading to a separate lung. Once inside the lungs, the bronchi then divide again into millions of smaller tubes that contain tiny air sacs called alveoli. Each of these alveoli have thin walls that allow oxygen and carbon dioxide to easily pass through when entering and leaving the blood.
It’s here in the blood that the oxygen is transported all around the body, to every single working cell that requires it. At the same time, the blood transports carbon dioxide back to the lungs, where it’s removed from the body when we exhale.
The role of oxygen
When we breathe in oxygen, it travels through our blood through all of the cells in our body, which then combine the oxygen with nitrogen and hydrogen to produce the proteins we need to build new cells. Oxygen also provides our body with essential energy for day-to-day tasks, making it possible for us to move about without tiring easily. It’s thought that billions of cells in our body wear out every day, and we need oxygen to replace these cells quickly and efficiently.
Oxygen’s benefits don’t stop there – we also need it to support a healthy immune system, helping to kill bacteria and fuelling the cells that kill off viruses and harmful pathogens. Even our eyes need oxygen to function well, by absorbing the gas directly through the cornea.
Too little oxygen
If you have low blood levels of oxygen, it’s called hypoxemia. Hypoxemia can cause a range of problems, from milder headaches and shortness of breath, to more serious interference with your heart and brain. If you have hypoxemia, you may also experience confusion, wheezing, coughing and an accelerated heartbeat.
Too little oxygen can be caused by a number of different factors, including heart conditions, lung issues, sleep apnoea, inflammation of the lungs, and strong pain medications. You may also experience lower blood levels of oxygen in areas of high altitude, where the oxygen levels in the air are reduced.
Monitoring oxygen levels
If you’re ill with a chronic disease that causes your blood oxygen levels to be unstable, you’ll probably need to use oxygen sensors to monitor your oxygen levels. These measure your blood oxygen by examining the light absorption in your blood, which will give you a reading of your blood oxygen saturation. You’re most likely to have your oxygen monitored in a medical situation, but you may also need to monitor your oxygen levels yourself at home. Your doctor will be able to give you more information should you need it.