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
Danielle Haak

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

Expert Contributor
Christianlly Cena

Christianlly has taught college physics and facilitated laboratory courses. He has a master's degree in Physics and is pursuing his doctorate study.

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.

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Additional Activities

Asphyxia: A Case Study

In this activity, you'll be asked to analyze two scenarios and provide a written response to questions about each scenario.

Case 1

Jared, a 25-year-old man overdosed on drugs while at a skiing event. He suffered an accident and was brought immediately by an ambulance into a nearby medical facility. Unluckily, the event fractured his knees, which required a knee replacement surgery. After the surgery, he was brought to the recovery room but failed to awaken. Two hours later, Jared remained unconscious, and later on, a generalized seizure occurred. He had an elevated breathing rate and blood pressure, with acid production occurring on his kidney. He had no other outstanding medical history, apart from a family history of addiction.

  1. In this scenario, is drug overdose the reason behind Jared's unconsciousness? Support your answer.
  2. If so, what do you call this condition that the patient is suffering? Describe this condition.

Case 2

A premature baby boy was born to a 33-year-old patient after 36 weeks of gestation. The infant was delivered via c-section due to fetal stress. A drop in maternal blood pressure during delivery with blood flow to the infant's brain occurred. A few seconds after delivery, the baby turned pale with no heartbeat and breathing observed.

  1. Is the baby suffering from asphyxia? Why do you say so?
  2. Provide two possible treatments for this given scenario.

Sample Answers

Case 1

  1. Drug overdose leads to abnormally high carbon dioxide levels in the blood, depriving the body of oxygen. Such substances can cause respiratory problems that require immediate help.
  2. In such a case, this leads to the condition known as asphyxia. It is a condition in which an extreme decrease in the concentration of oxygen in the body leads to loss of consciousness or even death.

Case 2

  1. Yes, the baby is suffering from asphyxia. In particular, this baby had inadequate blood circulation during delivery.
  2. The baby should undergo resuscitation and intubation. After this, he should be referred to the intensive care unit for diagnosis.

Medical Disclaimer: The information on this site is for your information only and is not a substitute for professional medical advice.

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