If you’ve ever been on a commercial airline there’s a good chance you’ve heard this phrase before. As some point during the safety video or demonstration you’ll hear some version of the following; “Make sure your mask is secure before helping others.” Here’s an example from United Airlines.
I’m sure you’ve heard this announcement several times over and never really given it much thought. In fact, I bet in a real emergency situation many parents ignore this message and begin assisting their children before putting their own mask on. This is a huge mistake and one that is potentially life threatening. That’s because during a rapid decompression you run the risk of developing the symptoms of Hypoxia which can eventually lead to death.
What Is Hypoxia?
Hypoxia is what happens when the body and more importantly, the brain, doesn’t get enough oxygen. Obviously without oxygen you will eventually pass out and could even die, but what makes hypoxia so serious is that you won’t care about any of that stuff as it’s happening.
As the effects of hypoxia set in you start to lose basic cognitive function. As the brain shuts down so too does the region of the brain that normally would tell you that you’re in trouble. Under normal circumstances you’d realize the need for oxygen and you’d put on your mask. However, with hypoxia, you may not care about putting on your mask at all.
Here is a great video about the effects of hypoxia on the brain.
In the video as the effects of hypoxia set in the subject (Kevin) becomes what I can only liken to being drunk. As time passes the instructor then directs Kevin to put on his mask, but he can’t be bothered. I’ve seen other videos like these where the instructors say “put on your mask or you will die” and the subject again doesn’t follow instructions.
As the video goes on the subject describes the effects of hypoxia as euphoric and feelings of well-being. See, what makes hypoxia so frightening is that you feel better as you get worse. In the event of rapid decompression the effects of hypoxia set in quickly. After just a few seconds if you don’t put on your oxygen mask you may not feel the need to. This could cause you to pass out and may even lead to death if not corrected. Hypoxia is the reason it’s so important to put your oxygen mask on first before helping anyone else. In the time it takes you to help someone else, you may not end up feeling the need to help yourself.
Hypoxia is incredibly frightening. I can only hope I never have to feel the effects of hypoxia during my travels, but it’s good to know that it exists. Now that I understand the effects of hypoxia I realize how important that safety announcement actually is. I’m sure you’ve heard it a million times, but at least now you can fully understand it’s importance.
Here’s a final video from one of my favorite YouTubers (Smarter Every Day) in which he further investigates the effects of hypoxia. It’s definitely worth a watch.