What Is Hypercapnia?

In some cases, hypercapnia is accompanied by hypoxemia, which occurs when there are insufficient blood oxygen levels in the arterial blood.
Lower settings on a ventilator can allow carbon dioxide to build up in the blood.
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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 05 November 2014
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Hypercapnia is an unusually high concentration of carbon dioxide in the blood which may be accompanied by hypoxemia, in which the oxygen level in the blood is low. This condition occurs as a result of poor gas exchange at the lungs which makes it difficult for people to eliminate carbon dioxide from their bodies. It can be associated with a number of medical problems including sleep apnea, chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder (COPD), and lung disease. Environmental factors such as breathing air with a high concentration of carbon dioxide can also be causes.

When someone has hypercapnia, symptoms such as elevated blood pressure and heart rate, sweating, and flushing can usually be observed. The central nervous system can become depressed, causing fatigue, confusion, dizziness, and blurred vision, and the pressure inside the skull, known as intercranial pressure, will increase. The patient may also have difficulty breathing and other symptoms related to the underlying cause can also be observed.

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If a patient has hypercapnia symptoms and appears to be at risk for this condition, a sample of the blood can be taken to test the carbon dioxide levels. Treating the patient usually starts with stabilization and determination of the cause so that the patient's blood can be cleared while the cause is also addressed to prevent a repeat buildup of carbon dioxide. This may require artificial ventilation to provide the patient with more oxygen and the administration of medications which are designed to address declines in lung function.

Patients with hypercapnia can develop respiratory acidosis, in which the pH content of the blood drops because of the change in its chemical composition. This leads to a cascading series of reactions which, among other things, can cause the level of carbon dioxide in the blood to accelerate. This known risk of hypercapnia is something which a doctor will closely watch for so that prompt intervention can be provided if a patient begins to develop acidosis.

There may be situations in which hypercapnia emerges during the course of medical treatment and it is tolerated as a side effect. The classic example occurs in patients placed on ventilators. Keeping the ventilator on a high setting can cause damage to the lungs, leading doctors to keep the settings lower to reduce risks to the patient, but this in turn can allow carbon dioxide to build up in the blood. A happy medium must be struck between preventing lung damage and avoiding hypercapnia damage in these situations.

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Discuss this Article

anon300551
Post 5

I was recently found to have high carbon dioxide. I drove myself to the local hospital and collapsed in respiratory arrest. The arterial carbon dioxide was 100 percent. I spent three weeks in the hospital and they don't know the exact cause.

It could be from mismanaged thyroid disease, sleeping disorder, or a neuromuscular disease. I was sleeping differently in the last year with insomnia and I would wake myself up talking to people I was sure were there. I had extremely vivid and scary dreams and lived a sedentary lifestyle. I had shortness of breath. Now I'm on a bipap machine and feel better although it's hard to get used to.

lighth0se33
Post 4

When my friend’s brother died, he could not handle the strain of it. He began taking strong sleeping pills so that he could avoid night terrors. Because of these pills, he developed hypercapnia and respiratory acidosis.

This lead to some scary symptoms. He began to hallucinate, sometimes seeing his brother in the room. His personality changed. He was always anxious and scared that he might be about to see a vision.

He finally went to a doctor, who got him off of the sleeping pills. They gave him breathing treatments, and sent him home with a type of ventilator to use while sleeping.

Oceana
Post 3

I had hypercapnia because of a struggle with lung disease. It is very scary.

Sometimes, without warning, I will become flushed and start to sweat, as though I have a fever. My heart races, and I check my blood pressure, which is almost always high when I feel this way.

I live with bouts of dizziness, and I often feel depressed and tired. I am weary of struggling for air. It feels like no matter how much I try, I can’t get a good, full breath.

I have to use a ventilator when I have bad episodes. I may never have my freedom to breathe on my own back.

seag47
Post 2

My dad has sleep apnea, and it caused him to develop hypercapnia. He is overweight and has severe apnea, so he was at great risk for it.

Hypercapnia happens while he is having an apnea episode. Since his respiration cycle pauses, carbon dioxide builds up. No oxygen is entering his body, and no carbon dioxide is exiting. He develops muscle twitches, high blood pressure, and hand flapping.

He went to a sleep center, where they gave him CPAP therapy. A CPAP machine lets pressurized air flow in and out of his body, as normal air should. The machine also reduces the lungs’ efforts.

StarJo
Post 1

My cousin developed hypercapnia due to his COPD, which was caused by years of smoking. Breathing all that cigarette smoke had irritated his air passages and destroyed the lung’s stretchy fibers.

With his hypercapnia, he had muscle twitches, fatigue, confusion, and trouble breathing. He also began to experience asthma.

His doctor set him up for noninvasive ventilation to treat the hypercapnia. His upper airways were filled with a mix of oxygen and air through a tight-fitting nasal mask attached to a flow generator. It helped him take full breaths and kept his body supplied with enough oxygen.

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