Hypoxia is a fundamental stimulus that impacts cells, tissues, organs, and physiological systems. The discovery of hypoxia-inducible factor-1 (HIF-1) and subsequent identification of other members of the HIF family of transcriptional activators has provided insight into the molecular underpinnings of oxygen homeostasis. This review focuses on the mechanisms of HIF activation and their roles in physiological and pathophysiological responses to hypoxia, with an emphasis on the cardiorespiratory systems. HIFs are heterodimers comprised of an O(2)-regulated HIF-1α or HIF-2α subunit and a constitutively expressed HIF-1β subunit. Induction of HIF activity under conditions of reduced O(2) availability requires stabilization of HIF-1α and HIF-2α due to reduced prolyl hydroxylation, dimerization with HIF-1β, and interaction with coactivators due to decreased asparaginyl hydroxylation. Stimuli other than hypoxia, such as nitric oxide and reactive oxygen species, can also activate HIFs. HIF-1 and HIF-2 are essential for acute O(2) sensing by the carotid body, and their coordinated transcriptional activation is critical for physiological adaptations to chronic hypoxia including erythropoiesis, vascularization, metabolic reprogramming, and ventilatory acclimatization. In contrast, intermittent hypoxia, which occurs in association with sleep-disordered breathing, results in an imbalance between HIF-1α and HIF-2α that causes oxidative stress, leading to cardiorespiratory pathology.