Just Breathe

Now what would happen if you breathed 100 percent oxygen? In guinea pigs exposed to 100 percent oxygen at normal air pressure for 48 hours, fluid accumulates in the lungs and the epithelial cells lining the alveoli. In addition, the pulmonary capillaries get damaged. A highly reactive form of the oxygen molecule, called the oxygen free radical, which destroys proteins and membranes in the epithelial cells, probably causes this damage. In humans breathing 100 percent oxygen at normal pressure, here's what happens:

  • Fluid accumulates in the lungs.
  • Gas flow across the alveoli slows down, meaning that the person has to breathe more to get enough oxygen.
  • Chest pains occur during deep breathing.
  • The total volume of exchangeable air in the lung decreases by 17 percent.
  • Mucus plugs local areas of collapsed alveoli -- a condition called atelectasis. The oxygen trapped in the plugged alveoli gets absorbed into the blood, no gas is left to keep the plugged alveoli inflated, and they collapse. Mucus plugs are normal, but they are cleared by coughing. If alveoli become plugged while breathing air, the nitrogen trapped in the alveoli keeps them inflated.

The astronauts in the Gemini and Apollo programs breathed 100 percent oxygen at reduced pressure for up to two weeks with no problems. In contrast, when 100 percent oxygen is breathed under high pressure (more than four times that of atmospheric pressure), acute oxygen poisoning can occur with these symptoms:

  • Nausea
  • Dizziness
  • Muscle twitches
  • Blurred vision
  • Seizures/convulsions

Such high oxygen pressures can be experienced by military SCUBA divers using rebreathing devices, divers being treated for the bends in hyperbaric chambers or patients being treated for acute carbon monoxide poisoning. These patients must be carefully monitored during treatment.