Dangerous condition happy hypoxia is going undetected in Covid-19 patients - here’s what it is

Friday, 8th May 2020, 12:59 pm
Updated Friday, 8th May 2020, 12:59 pm

Doctors have warned of a potentially deadly phenomenon among coronavirus patients, known as ‘happy hypoxia’.

Some coronavirus patients with critically low blood-oxygen levels have been baffling doctors by not showing any symptoms of their conditions, according to Science Magazine.

The patients have been able to chat with doctors, use their phones and are reported to be perfectly comfortable.

What are normal blood oxygen levels?

A normal blood-oxygen level is no lower than 95 per cent.

When a patient's blood-oxygen level drops below this percentage, they start to have symptoms, such as shortness of breath, which indicate there is a problem.

This is seen in pneumonia and other respiratory diseases, as the drop in oxygen causes rising levels of carbon dioxide and fluid-filled lungs.

What is happy hypoxia?

Hypoxia is a medical term for when someone is deprived of adequate oxygen supply to the body or regions of the body at tissue level.

Silent hypoxia, also dubbed happy hypoxia due to the patient’s lack of obvious distress, is an acute drop in oxygen levels that occur without any warning.

It is well known that in serious cases of the virus, Covid-19 patients experience shortness of breath, due to damaged lungs.

However coronavirus patients in the early stages of the disease can have alarmingly low blood-oxygen levels, without showing any signs of respiratory difficulties, according to the academic science journal, Science Magazine.

The journal reports that patients have healthy carbon dioxide saturation levels and are able to breathe normally, yet all the while their oxygen levels are dropping to 50 per cent or lower.

According to Nicholas Caputo, an emergency physician in New York, some doctors believe such low readings of oxygen levels are potentially “ominous” in COVID-19 patients who do not yet show symptoms.

What causes it?

While the exact cause of this phenomenon is not yet confirmed, theories have begun to surface.

Many doctors now believe that clotting, a major feature of severe Covid-19, could be to blame.

Elnara Marcia Negri, a pulmonologist in Sao Paulo, told Science Magazine she believes subtle clotting might start in the lungs early on in the disease, going undetected and preventing blood from getting properly oxygenated.

Changes to treatment methods

The potentially deadly phenomenon has prompted debates around the correct treatment methods for coronavirus patients.

Luciano Gattinoni, intensive care professor at the University of Göttingen Medical Centre, has advised doctors against using ventilators to inflate patients’ lungs, or using high-pressure oxygen where patients seem outwardly comfortable.

Dr Gattononi warned such treatments could actually cause harm to lungs that can inflate on their own, according to Science Magazine.

Currently, there have not yet been any studies carried out to confirm whether detecting happy hypoxia early can help in the treatment of coronavirus patients.