Low Oxygen Level - Warning signs and when you should use oxygen concentrators

Considering the situation of short oxygen supply to help save the lives of Covid-19 patients, Union Health and Family Welfare Ministry explains when and how you can restore the oxygen levels in the body, and when to use oxygen concentrators.

ByIFP Bureau

Updated on 29 May 2021, 10:35 am

(Photo: IFP)

(Photo: IFP)


An increase in oxygen requirement is reported in COVID-19 patients during the second wave of the pandemic, and many breathed their last owing to shortage of oxygen supply. Considering the situation, while there are many do's and don'ts circulating, the Union Health and Family Welfare Ministry underlines the warning signs of low oxygen level in your body and when and how you can restore the oxygen levels in the body, and when to use oxygen concentrators.

Warning Signs of Low Oxygen Level

Warning signs of low oxygen level include difficulty in breathing, confusion, difficulty in waking up and bluish lips or face. Adults may develop chest pain that doesn’t go away. Children may experience flaring up of nostrils, grunting while breathing or inability to drink or eat.

According to WHO, Hypoxemia (low oxygen levels in blood) may eventually result in loss of life. When oxygen levels become low because of a sickness such as COVID-19, the cells in the body don’t get enough oxygen to perform their normal functions. If the level remains low for long, maybe due to lack of treatment, organs start to malfunction; in severe cases, it may cause death.

Know How to Measure Oxygen Level

Pulse Oximeter: You can measure the oxygen level of a patient using a pulse oximeter which you can place on their finger, toe or earlobe. It’s a painless test, taking less than two minutes.

Pulse oximeters measure the oxygen saturation or percentage of oxygen in the patient’s blood. According to a WHO training manual on pulse oximetry, if the oxygen saturation is 93 per cent or lower, the patient needs to be treated quickly. A saturation of less than 90 per cent is a clinical emergency.

Respiratory Rate: Respiratory rate is the number of breaths a person takes per minute. Dr. Somashekhara, Director, National Tuberculosis Institute, Bangalore explains a simple method to measure the respiratory rate without any device. Keep your palm on your chest, measure your respiratory rate for 1 minute. If the respiratory rate is less than 24 per minute, your oxygen level is safe. If a patient has more than 30 breaths per minute, the oxygen level is low.

What to do when you face low oxygen level

Proning: Patients undergoing home care are advised to lie prone on their stomachs. This will improve breathing and increase oxygen saturation.

According to Clinical Management Protocol for COVID-19 (in Adults), released by the Union Health Ministry on May 24, 2021, awake proning should be encouraged in all patients who require supplemental oxygen therapy.

The advisory by the Health and Family Welfare Ministry also underlines important considerations while proning in non-intubated patients

1. Any COVID-19 patient with respiratory embarrassment severe enough to be admitted to the hospital may be considered for rotation and early self proning.

2. Care must be taken to not disrupt the flow of oxygen during patient rotation

3. Typical protocols include 30-120 minutes in prone position, followed by 30-120 minutes in left lateral decubitus (lying on left side), right lateral decubitus (lying on right side), and upright sitting position.

When you should use oxygen concentrators

Experts suggest that oxygen therapy may be given only in presence of a healthcare provider. However, one may use them in an emergency, while medical attention is being sought or while waiting for an ambulance.

Professor and Head of Department, Anaesthesia, B. J. Medical College, Pune, Prof. Sanyogita Naik advises: “Oxygen concentrators can be used only in moderate cases of COVID-19, when the patient experiences a drop in oxygen levels, where the oxygen requirement is a maximum of 5 litres per minute.”

The professor added that oxygen concentrators are also very useful for patients experiencing post-COVID complications which necessitate oxygen therapy.

In both the above cases, the goal of oxygen therapy is to achieve a saturation level of 94%; once the patient has 93% to 94% oxygen level, the oxygen therapy may be discontinued. Excess of oxygen may lead to increase in the level of Carbon Dioxide, leading to complications.

According to Dr. Ravichandra, Chief Medical Officer, National Tuberculosis Institute, Bangalore: “80% of COVID-19 cases reported are mild. Only 15% COVID patients may have moderate disease where one’s oxygen saturation level may go less than 94%. And the remaining 5% COVID infected people may end up having severe disease which shows respiratory rate higher than 30/minute and oxygen saturation level less than 90%.”

Also Read

Mass testing plus vaccination

Government to discontinue central allocation of Remdesivir

COVID-19 Vaccination: Should you get the jab?


First published:29 May 2021, 10:35 am


IFP Bureau

IFP Bureau

IMPHAL, Manipur

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