Covid-19: what is “happy hypoxia”, this mysterious new symptom of the disease?

Doctors have found that some patients with Covid-19 have very low oxygen saturation, but do not appear to show signs of respiratory distress. A mysterious phenomenon which would not be without consequences for health.

  1. Cough,
  2. fever,
  3. headache …

These symptoms can be suggestive of coronavirus and progress, in the most serious cases, to respiratory distress . Patients then have hypoxia, in other words an oxygen saturation – which corresponds to the amount of oxygen circulating in the blood – particularly low, which generally makes them incoherent, comatose, even unconscious. Their state of health is therefore critical.   

“Silent hypoxia”: a mysterious manifestation of the Covid-19

But in some cases, a mysterious phenomenon, highlighted in particular by the American scientific journal Science , occurs: patients with Covid-19 having a very low oxygen saturation come to the hospital by simply complaining of a respiratory discomfort . 

This is what some have called “happy hypoxia” , an expression inappropriate given the gravity of the situation. The correct term to describe this phenomenon is “silent hypoxia”.  

Dr. Richard Levitan

On CNN , Dr. Richard Levitan , an American emergency doctor, explains that he has seen patients presenting with blood oxygen levels so low that they should have been unconscious. Normal oxygen saturation is between 95% and 100%. When it is below 90%, it is considered abnormal. 

Some of the patients cared for by Dr. Richard Levitan had 50% oxygen saturation.     

“Their radios lungs were awful, they (rates) oxygen was terrible, and yet they were fully awake and alert on their mobile phone. They all said they were a bit sick for days and it n ‘ only recently they had noticed or shortness of breath or fatigue or something else “

Dr. Richard Levitan

A phenomenon causing potential damage to the body

Dr. Mike Charlesworth , anesthesiologist at Wythenshawe Hospital -Manchester-

How can we explain that these patients have no idea that their state of health has deteriorated so much? 

“We would not observe this phenomenon in the context of influenza or community-acquired pneumonia. It is much deeper and an example of a very abnormal physiological mechanism which takes place before our eyes (…) We simply do not understand not, “ 

Some doctors assume that when patients with Covid-19 develop discomfort in breathing, the body accelerates breathing to compensate, while oxygen levels in the blood continue to drop. The organism then adapts to this change, just as it adapts to high altitude.

Although silent, this hypoxia can cause damage to the lungs , but also to other organs such as the heart, kidneys and brain . How to avoid it? Some doctors suggest that providing a pulse oximeter – which takes oxygen saturation on the fingertip – to patients who test positive for Covid-19 may be a solution. 

But it has its limits, because they do not know if an early detection of this hypoxia would be enough to avoid the damage caused to the body.