Symptoms of Oxygen Toxicity

Those that suffer from COPD and/or other chronic ailments rely on oxygen therapy to survive daily.  Oxygen therapy has many benefits on top of survival, including relief of irritating symptoms, improves quality of life, the ability to increase level and intensity of exercise, and more.  However, too much oxygen therapy can cause oxygen toxicity.

What is Oxygen Toxicity?

Oxygen toxicity happens when you breathe “an excess of high partial pressures of oxygen at greater than atmospheric pressure.”  Depending on the type of exposure, your body can be affected in different ways. Short-term exposure can cause central nervous system toxicity.  Whereas longer-term exposure to increased oxygen levels at normal pressure can cause pulmonary toxicity.

History Overview

Oxygen was first discovered in 1774 by Joseph Priestly.  He was also one of the first to show the adverse effects of too much oxygen.  It was not until just over 100 years later that Paul Bert, a French physiologist, showed the negative effects of oxygen toxicity in larks.  People still refer to the adverse effects of oxygen on the body’s nervous system as the “Bert Effect.”

Those at Risk

The majority of patients that use oxygen therapy are not at risk, as long as they stick with their doctor’s instructions and guidelines.  Scuba divers, patients in the hospital or infants using supplemental oxygen, and patients being treated for carbon monoxide and cyanide poisoning with oxygen therapy are at highest risk for developing oxygen toxicity.

Oxygen Toxicity Symptoms

Overall, oxygen toxicity can exist in two different medical settings.  If a patient is exposed to high concentration oxygen levels for a short period of time (for example, those using oxygen therapy) they can be at risk of oxygen toxicity.  The other setting happens when longer-term exposure of lower concentrations of oxygen takes place. These two instances lead to acute or chronic oxygen toxicity. Chronic effects show themselves in the lungs and the acute effects show up as central nervous system symptoms.  Oxygen toxicity symptoms are most intense in the brain and spinal cord (the CNS) and lungs.

Central Nervous System Toxicity:  The early symptoms have a tendency to come on quickly and abruptly, starting with muscle spasms and twitches around the mouth and chin and in the muscles in hands.  The skin can turn a grayish color and stop-and-go breathing (somewhat jerky) in CNS toxicity. If the patient continues to be exposed to oxygen, they can experience nausea and/or vertigo. They may suffer from anxiety, confusion, and may be irritable. They can become clumsy and lose coordination. Lastly, they may start convulsing.

Pulmonary Toxicity:  The lower respiratory tract is affected by pulmonary toxicity. This includes the trachea, bronchi, and lungs. Pain behind the breastbone is typically the first sign of pulmonary toxicity then spreads to other areas, increasing in severity and a may cough begin.  In extreme and intense cases, lung tissue can become scarred permanently.

To learn more information about oxygen toxicity, reach out to your doctor.