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A Sharp Intake of Breath

I can’t breathe… feels like something… stuck… throat!

I love it when people tell me they can’t breathe.

This young guy after his bout, fight, or whatever it’s called when kids do judo, was having problems moving air in and out of his lungs. He was breathing because he just spoke to me. If anything, he was over doing it and hyperventilating or breathing too much. Yep, I was looking at a young lad overdosing on oxygen.

“How can you overdose on air, you must be wrong Steve, surely you can’t get too much air, it’s all around you all the time?”

Wrong! It is indeed possible to overdose on the very stuff that keeps us all alive. Or should I say, it’s possible to have too much oxygen in your system which forces down the level of Carbon Dioxide (CO2) and this is where the problems start. Let me introduce you to a new word, Homeostasis or the body in balance. When I’m teaching I ask people to tell me how long they can go without food. I get various answers, from hours to months, but it’s about three weeks before things go horribly wrong. Then I ask about water, how long can a human being, such as the ones I usually teach go without the wet stuff? Three days and disaster strikes. Then air, or more accurately, oxygen. How long without this freely available element is ok, and when do we start to panic? Three minutes. Hold your breath…

Underwater, somewhere that holding your breath is a handy, if not essential skill

OK? Still with us? Good, how long did you manage to hold it for? Free divers and strange magicians who like to lock themselves in water filled boxes aside, most us cannot make it past three minutes. 180 seconds without air and… well, the result is not good. Ten minutes without breathing and we have the grim reaper laughing all the way to the body bank.

When we take a breath, about 21% of what enters our lungs is oxygen, our lungs pass the oxygen atoms to our blood, where they get transported to every single one of our cells so that they can ride their Krebs cycle around and do the job of keeping us alive. So, without oxygen, cells die, not good news for the body as a whole. But… with too much oxygen, they might actually die even faster.

Oxygen in high amounts, or oxygen toxicity is a bad thing, very bad. Oxidative Stress. This is very, very bad news. You know the octet rule, where atoms like to have eight electrons in their outer shell? No? Another lesson coming soon I guess, but for now, atoms need to feel complete, and some, like carbon for example will bond with just about anything to feel complete. Others like Sodium in water, now there’s a sight (from a distance) or Chlorine, which will literally tear things apart to satisfy it’s need to be ‘whole’. Oxygen needs two more electrons to be satisfied or whole, and if it only manages to get one it becomes a free radical, a bad guy, a highly reactive dude that can do you loads of harm. They can tear your cells apart… bad!

Fear not my friend for here come Antioxidants to the rescue, made naturally in your body but also found in berries, veggies etc. Plastered all over supermarket packaging to let you know just how marvellous they are. You’ve seen “Full of Antioxidants” on packets, right? Antioxidants stop Free radicals from wrecking the party, they restore your mojo, and keep things balanced. Homeostasis is good, right?

Anyway, before I lose track of where this is going, we have evolved to remain balanced when there is about 21% oxygen in the atmosphere, mostly down here, at or near sea level. We did not get here today on 100% oxygen. This much oxygen can produce a colossal number of free radicals, bad guys remember. These in turn can rust you out from inside and cause serious damage to your cells. They’ll grab electrons from your cells like looters outside an electrical store during a riot. This is why I teach my guys out there saving lives, that not everyone goes on oxygen, not everyone needs oxygen, and when they do, do not just whip that cylinder up to 100% without good reason to.

So, back to the judo kid! He was breathing too fast and was mildly aggressive with it. He said he had tingling in his fingers and pain in his chest. He was panicking and hyperventilating. His Oxygen to Carbon Dioxide balance was all screwed.

I asked bystanders to give us some room, I was polite but firm with them and him. I was the boss here, mainly because I was the one with Medic on my hi-vis jacket!

See? MEDIC, right there on the front

He was overdosing on oxygen, so I needed to lower it, despite him insisting that he needed more oxygen, he needed drugs, something to take away the feeling of doom rushing through his head.

Lower his oxygen level and raise the carbon dioxide.


I’m glad you asked.

There is always the good old paper bag trick, but I’m a bit more high-tech than that…

This lad was acting like he was going to die if he didn’t get drugs, “You must have an inhaler or something!” maybe I did, but I wasn’t giving it to him. He wasn’t having an asthma attack after all. I got a cylinder of gas, and told him to take deep, slow breaths, “Breathe in, hold it, and out” I repeated this a few times and it seemed to do the trick, he held on to the mask like his life depended on it. I was in charge now, so I told him when to breathe this magic stuff in, when to hold it and when to breathe out. He was soon on the mend. The look of panic went from his face and he stopped squeezing my hand like he was trying to rip my fingers off. He told me that the pain in his chest was going and his behaviour settled down.

So, what was this magic gas that did such a fine job of restoring the lad’s health, as I’ve sort of told you I wouldn’t give him oxygen. Nothing much, no seriously, nothing. It was an oxygen cylinder, but I didn’t connect the mask to it. He was hyperventilating, so the last thing I wanted to do was give him more oxygen, but he didn’t know that. All he was doing was breathing in and out of a mask with a bit of tube stuck on it. I made him breathe through a small diameter tube attached to nothing, and the nice medic made him better with his magic gas. Yeah, I’m nice like that!

Now, after my little lesson, every one of you will know what to do if you find a mate hyperventilating, so I can relax and go watch telly.

Oh, one last thing, here’s another new word for you…


Go look it up.

You’re Welcome.