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What Is Asphyxia? - Definition, Causes & Symptoms

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  • 0:01 What Is Asphyxia?
  • 1:10 Causes of Asphyxia
  • 2:05 Symptoms of Asphyxia
  • 2:56 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Danielle Haak

Danielle has a PhD in Natural Resource Sciences and a MSc in Biological Sciences

Asphyxia is a condition where the body doesn't get enough oxygen. If left untreated, it can cause coma or death. This lesson will discuss the different causes and symptoms associated with asphyxia.

What Is Asphyxia?

Karen and her brother Stephen were swimming in their family's pool. Karen was laying on a float, soaking up some sun, while Stephen was diving for toys. Suddenly, she realized Stephen had gotten awfully quiet so she sat up to see what he was doing. To her surprise, Karen saw Stephen floating off to the side of the pool! He was quiet, his eyes were closed, and his skin had a slight blue tint to it. She realized he was unconscious, so she jumped down, pulled him out of the pool, and began CPR while calling for their mom.

What happened to poor Stephen? Well, Stephen accidentally inhaled some pool water during one of his dives and was suffering from the early stages of asphyxia. Luckily, Karen's CPR training helped her save her little brother's life!

Asphyxia is the condition where the body either doesn't get enough oxygen to continue normal function or has too much carbon dioxide to function properly. Without adequate oxygen, nerve cells in the brain begin to die in about 2-4 minutes, and cell death is irreversible. When Stephen inhaled water, the water in his lungs blocked the lungs' uptake of oxygen. Drowning or near drowning can cause asphyxia, but so can a number of other conditions.

Causes of Asphyxia

Asphyxia can occur when the airway is physically blocked or as a side effect of an injury or other medical condition.

Examples of the airway being physically blocked can include:

  • Choking
  • A foreign object lodged in the respiratory system or throat
  • Suffocation
  • Strangulation
  • Drowning
  • The tongue blocking the airway when a person is unconscious

Examples of injuries or illnesses that can cause asphyxiation can include:

  • Collapsed lung
  • Inhalation of toxic fumes (like carbon monoxide)
  • Whooping cough
  • Diptheria (bacterial infection)
  • Croup
  • Heart failure
  • Swollen veins in the head or neck
  • Paralysis
  • Asthma
  • Broken neck
  • High blood pressure
  • Allergic reaction
  • Sleep apnea
  • Drug overdose

As you can see, there are many scenarios where asphyxia can occur.

Symptoms of Asphyxia

There are a few tell-tale signs of asphyxia. You may have found it alarming that Stephen's skin turned blue in the scenario, but this is one symptom of asphyxia. Any time the body isn't getting enough oxygen, affected areas may develop a blueish tint.

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