Hypercapnia: Definition, Symptoms & Treatment

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  • 0:01 What Is Hypercapnia?
  • 0:33 Causes of Hypercapnia
  • 0:53 Symptoms of Hypercapnia
  • 1:26 Treatment Options
  • 2:17 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Danielle Haak

Danielle has a PhD in Natural Resource Sciences and a MSc in Biological Sciences

Hypercapnia is when excessive carbon dioxide collects in the blood stream. Check out this lesson to learn about why this happens, what causes it, what the symptoms are, and what the possible treatment options are for this condition.

What is Hypercapnia?

When you breathe, you take in and use oxygen and produce carbon dioxide as a waste product. Your blood stream is responsible for taking oxygen from the lungs and distributing it around your body, as well as collecting the waste carbon dioxide and transporting it to be removed from your body. If too much of this carbon dioxide builds up in the blood, it's known as hypercapnia. This accumulation of carbon dioxide leads to acidification in the body, which can be harmful over the long-term if left untreated.

Causes of Hypercapnia

So, what causes carbon dioxide to accumulate in the blood, leading to hypercapnia? There are a number of causes, including seizures, drug overdoses, lesions on the brainstem, lung disease, hyperventilation, skeletal muscle weakness, asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and sleep apnea.

Symptoms of Hypercapnia

Sometimes hypercapnia develops gradually over a long period of time. When this happens, there may not be any noticeable symptoms. However, if symptoms are present, they typically include drowsiness, sleepiness, confusion or an inability to think clearly, or headaches. Severe hypercapnia is a serious condition and can lead to respiratory failure or even death. Symptoms of severe hypercapnia include dizziness, flushed skin, quick or difficult breathing, increased blood pressure and heart rate, and muscle spasms or twitches.

Treatment Options

Treating hypercapnia requires identifying the underlying causes. In extreme situations, intubation or being put on a medical ventilation device may be necessary, or supplying oxygen to the person may be necessary to try to fix the imbalance. A tube can be physically inserted into the airway, and a machine delivers oxygen directly to the lungs. People suffering from a drug overdose may require CPR, or an antidote if one is available.

Chronic breathing problems that cause hypercapnia may be treated with non-invasive ventilation therapy through the use of a CPAP (or continuous positive airway pressure) or a BiPAP (or bilevel positive airway pressure) machine. Rather than specifically decreasing the carbon dioxide in the blood, these work to increase the levels of oxygen in the blood.

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