Sustained Low Oxygen Levels Can Induce Hypoxemia and Cabin Fever

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When the weather turns bitter cold, it is important that your walls keep the heat in and the wind out. Just remember air circulation is important to prevent low oxygen levels which, when sustained, lead to hypoxemia and cabin fever.

“Cabin fever” is an expression that means different things to different people. The term might cause some folks to remember seeing Charlie Chaplin make soup out of his shoes in a rerun of The Gold Rush. Other people may equate it with February — the month that Joseph Wood Krutch called “the very three a.m. of the calendar” — when false spring can be jarred by a terrible blizzard. But, to most folks, cabin fever just means a need to get away, to be anywhere but where they are . . . an urge to shuck winter and indulge (prematurely) in a celebration of spring.

Like many homilies and old wives’ tales, the notion of cabin fever is feared by some and laughed at by others, but there is a form of this “disease” that can be very real and even dangerous . . . as my housernate and I discovered.

Our 16- by 20-foot board-and-batten cabin was barely standing when we found it high on the slopes of Oregon’s Blue Mountains. The exterior boards had been ripped from three of its sides, and the only things holding the little structure up were its sturdy box frame and the inner walls.

But we loved the place, and so pre-winter repairs became an urgent project. We installed fiberglass insulation throughout the building, replaced the missing boards, and added weatherstripping. The work was satisfying, and when — during the first cold spell — the winds outside barely disturbed the plume of smoke from my evening pipe, we judged the job well done. With its wood stove fired up, the cabin was snug and secure . . . even when the temperature plunged to 20 below!

In our snug security, however, we’d forgotten a very simple junior high school science lesson: An experiment in which a lit candle was placed beneath a bell jar. The flame went out in that demonstration and — our instructor warned us — had a mouse been under the jar with the candle, it would have died.

Fortunately, though, we had not quite made a bell jar of our cabin, despite all of the caulking and weatherstripping . . . but we had created a situation where –­ with the wood stove burning — our oxygen level sometimes dropped too low.

We called it cabin fever . . . but the medical profession refers to the condition as hypoxemia. It results from a lack of oxygen and — in our case at least — its symptoms were very subtle. In fact, we actually went through three winters of blaming our various ailments on boredom and bad weather.

What were the symptoms we experienced? The most common were irritability, restlessness, an inability to concentrate, and lethargy. Later, we found that a prolonged bout with serious hypoxemia could have resulted in more serious physical conditions . . . especially those of a cardiocirculatory, coronaryarterial, atherosclerotic, or cerebrovascular nature (the names alone were enough to scare us!).

You see, when that cabin was built (60 years ago) there was no need to worry about hypoxemia. The only insulation was provided by the leaves that the pack rats deposited in the hollow walls . . . and open cracks in the boards and batten let in more than enough fresh air. But, when we sealed the house up we were asking for trouble . . . and we got it. One or both of us were often touchy and nervous for no clear reason, and we often experienced a feeling of restriction around our diaphragms. (These pains in the diaphragm area can — in a snowbound cabin — quickly degenerate into cardiac neurosis.)

When — after three winters of not feeling “quite right” — our doctor mentioned the possibility of hypoxemia, we suddenly understood all of the senseless January arguments, the occasional lethargy at chore time, and the flu-like symptoms we had experienced in that isolated woods where no virus could possibly have come.

Our solution? Well, we tore away some of the weatherstripping and now keep our loft-bedroom window partly open on all but the coldest nights . . . and we’ve scarcely exchanged a harsh word since.

But now we’re well into winter again, and we feel a vague anxiety. It seems like the first buttercup should be only weeks away, and we’d like to go somewhere for a couple of days, but we’re snowed in. Our only consolation is that this time it’s the real cabin fever . . . hypoxemia is another matter entirely.