The Effects of Hypoxia & Anoxia to the Brain


Our bodies need a constant flow of oxygen in order to stay alive. Oxygen may enter the lungs through our mouths and noses but from here it is pumped directly to the brain, this is where the important work happens. If the brain does not get a continuous supply of oxygen every few seconds then it can soon become oxygen deprived. In this state the brain can start to deteriorate rapidly and devastating and irreversible brain damage can soon set in.

What’s the Differenc between Hypoxia & Anoxia?

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Anoxic brain injuries are caused when there is a complete severance of oxygen to the brain over enough time to cause massive damage. Hypoxic brain injuries are caused when there is a partial lack of oxygen, an interruption in the oxygen flow that isn’t as complete as anoxic injuries but still enough to prevent the brain from operating at full capacity. The two terms are similar in meaning but there are changes between the two. Each represents a brain injury caused by lack of oxygen but hypoxic injuries can be more severe if the flow is not re-established soon. Generally the term cerebral anoxia is used to describe both unless a distinction between the two terms becomes necessary, such as in extreme cases.

Common Causes of a Lack of Oxygen to the Brain

There are many different causes of an anoxic/hypoxic brain injury; here are some of the most common:

  • Choking on food or drink
  • Suffocation (this includes strangulation)
  • A severe allergic reaction causing swelling to the glands or neck
  • Severe asthma complications or asthma attack
  • Drowning or near drowning
  • Exposure to high altitudes with low oxygen
  • Carbon monoxide poisoning
  • Drug overdoes/excessive alcohol abuse can also cause this
  • Vomiting while unconscious
  • Severe electric shocks
  • Cardiac arrests, heart murmurs
  • Respiratory difficulties
  • Smoke inhalation
  • Irregular heart rhythms
  • Low blood pressure
  • Shock or severe panic attacks
  • Traumatic injury to the neck or chest


All of the above represent risks to breathing and the oxygen supply to the brain. Each of these over an extended amount of time can become incredibly dangerous. A hypoxic or anoxic brain injury, if severe, can lead to death or place the sufferer in a situation that leads to a vegetative state. Even those who survive a hypoxic or anoxic brain injury can suffer lifelong effects.

Aquired Brain Injuries

Like any acquired brain injury the symptoms can be unpredictable and depend on the person and the situation. Where the injury may not count as a traumatic brain injury, as in one that was caused by some kind of physical bump to the head, the symptoms and damage to the brain can be the same. As the symptoms cannot be directly seen, unlike a traumatic head injury, many people underestimate the effects and do not understand that the brain damage caused can be just as severe as any other brain injury.

Fortunately brain damage from anoxia and hypoxia can heal over time. Brain injuries can heal if they are caught early and the right treatment is sought. Not everyone is in this situation however.


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Common Causes of Brain Damage


Risk of death sets in during true hypoxia very quickly. It can take only 3 minutes for irreparable brain damage to set it. This is the sort of damage that will change a person’s life forever and can result in them needing constant care for the rest of their lives. For some people in this situation they may be so badly damaged that everything that made them who they are is gone. Lots of family members may make the incredibly difficult choice in this situation to turn off a life support machine, especially if the person can no longer breathe for himself or herself. When true hypoxia sets in most people die in less than 10 minutes. The very old, very young or those already suffering from respiratory conditions may not even last this long. Others may die from shock or a heart attack before the hypoxia itself becomes fatal.




Those suffering from hypoxia will display a multitude of symptoms, some are not as obvious as you would think. When we imagine someone struggling to get oxygen to his or her lungs may picture a person gasping for breath, clutching their throats and choking. This is often how it is depicted on TV or in film. In reality the symptoms can be much more subtle and harder to spot. This is especially true if with anoxia. Many victims of anoxia and hypoxia may lose consciousness before they are able to explain or show their symptoms.


Some common warning signs of hypoxia and anoxia include:

  • Something obstructing the face, mouth, or nose which shouldn’t be
  • Increased carbon monoxide exposure can be a problem in enclosed areas, so a person in a very small space or whose face is covered may suffer from oxygen deprivation even if they can breathe.
  • Changes in mood or personality; the victim may seem confused.
  • Loss of consciousness, including fainting or seizures.
  • Blue or white lips, tongue, or face. The rest of the face may be going pale or abnormally different in colouration.
  • Tingling or numbness in the extremities.
  • Pupils that don’t respond as they normally do when exposed to light.
  • Failure to breathe properly, or not expelling air when exhaling.
  • Hyperventilating or gasping for air.
  • Unable to speak, this may be obvious or hard to notice.
  • A person who is truly choking may not be able to cough.
  • Panic or shock.


Hypoxia is a serious condition and needs to be treated immediately. Calling emergency services should be done as soon as possible and any attempts to treat this without professional assistance could make it worse. Should you even seriously suspect someone close to you is suffering from hypoxia or anoxia then you should call an ambulance right away. This may save their life or help them avoid months of medical therapy, heartache and pain. Being aware of the signs is the first step to this.

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