Hypercapnia, also called hypercarbia, arises from having too much carbon dioxide in the blood. It typically happens with hypoxia, which is when there is not enough oxygen in the body.
Hypercapnia happens when breathing problems make it difficult to take in oxygen and breathe out carbon dioxide. It is typically due to a disease that affects the lungs.
This article discusses symptoms and causes of hypercapnia and outlines some treatment options.
Symptoms can range from mild to severe.
A person with hypercapnia might
These symptoms may arise from shorter periods of shallow or slow breathing, such as during deep sleep.
The body can often balance carbon dioxide levels in the bloodstream and correct the symptoms by itself. However, if symptoms persist, a person should contact a doctor.
The symptoms of severe hypercapnia require immediate medical attention, as they can cause long-term complications. Some may even be fatal.
Severe hypercapnia symptoms
- depression or paranoia
- nausea and vomiting
- loss of consciousness or coma
- panic attack
- cardiovascular breakdown
A person may also experience other symptoms related to an underlying disease such as COPD or asthma.
Here are some possible causes of hypercapnia.
Chronic bronchitis leads to inflammation and mucus in the airways, while emphysema involves damage to the alveoli (air sacs) in the lungs.
Both conditions can cause increased levels of carbon dioxide in the bloodstream.
The main cause of COPD is long-term exposure to lung irritants. According to the
However, up to
Air pollution and exposure to chemicals or dust may also cause COPD.
Although not everyone with COPD will develop hypercapnia, a person’s risk increases as their COPD progresses.
Asthma causes the airways to become inflamed and narrowed. It may impact breathing and the levels of carbon dioxide in the body when it is unmanaged.
People with asthma have a
Doctors do not know precisely why asthma develops, though it is
Sleep apnea can present as shallow breathing or pauses in breathing during sleep. It can affect oxygen levels in the blood and the body’s balance of carbon dioxide and oxygen.
Sleep apnea symptoms
Nerve disorders and muscular problems
In some people, the nerves and muscles necessary for sufficient lung function may not work correctly. For example, muscular dystrophy can cause the muscles to weaken, eventually leading to breathing problems.
Other disorders of the nervous or muscular systems that can contribute to hypercapnia include the following:
- amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, which affects nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord
- encephalitis, which is inflammation of the brain
- Guillain-Barré syndrome, which can result from an unusual immune response
- myasthenia gravis, which is a chronic disease that can weaken the skeletal muscles responsible for breathing
Other causes of high blood levels of carbon dioxide include:
- activities that impact breathing, including
divingand ventilator use
- COVID-19 in some people who
use a ventilator
- brain stem stroke, which can affect breathing
- hypothermia, which is severe heat loss from the body that often occurs with hypercapnia and hypoxia
- obesity hypoventilation, which happens when having obesity makes it difficult to breathe deeply or quickly enough, according to older research
drugsthat can slow breathing, such as opioids
Does wearing a face mask cause hypercapnia?
During the COVID-19 pandemic, some people had concerns that wearing a face mask could lead to hypercapnia. However, there is very little evidence to support this.
Face masks are not airtight. The materials allow air, including carbon dioxide, to circulate rather than build up. Even with medical-grade masks, it
Additionally, thinner surgical and cloth masks are more porous and loose-fitting, allowing for even more air exchange.
People who have difficulty breathing do not need to wear a face mask.
Some tests used to diagnose hypercapnia
- Blood tests: Laboratory tests can check for anemia and assess sodium, potassium, and chloride levels.
- Thyroid stimulating hormone: Doctors use this hormone to test for thyroid problems.
- Arterial blood gas test: This measures the blood levels of carbon dioxide and oxygen.
- Spirometry test: This test involves blowing into a tube to assess how much air a person can move out of their lungs and how fast they can do it.
- X-ray or CT scan: These imaging tests can show the presence of lung damage and lung conditions.
The treatment for hypercapnia will depend on the severity of the condition and the underlying cause. Options include:
Ventilation is typically the first line of treatment for hypercapnia. A doctor
- Noninvasive ventilation: Airflow comes through a mouthpiece or nasal mask. This is helpful for people with sleep apnea to keep their airways open at night. It is also known as continuous positive airway pressure, or CPAP.
- Mechanical ventilation: A doctor will insert a tube through the mouth into the airway. This is called intubation.
People with severe hypercapnia symptoms may need a ventilation device to help them breathe.
Certain medications can help manage breathing or address underlying problems:
- antibiotics can treat pneumonia or other respiratory infections
- bronchodilators can open the airways
- corticosteroids can reduce inflammation in the airway
People who undergo oxygen therapy regularly use a device to deliver oxygen to the lungs. Oxygen therapy can help balance the levels of carbon dioxide in the blood.
To reduce symptoms and avoid complications, a doctor may recommend:
- dietary changes
- increased physical activity
- quitting or avoiding smoking
- limiting exposure to chemicals, dust, and fumes, where possible
Some people with lung or airway damage need surgery. Lung volume reduction surgery can remove damaged tissue. With lung transplantation, a surgeon replaces a damaged lung with a healthy lung from a donor.
Methods for helping to prevent hypercapnia include:
- treating existing lung conditions
- quitting or avoiding smoking
- reaching or maintaining a moderate weight
- following an exercise plan
- avoiding exposure to toxic fumes and chemicals
Here are some answers to questions people often ask about hypercapnia.
What is hypercapnia?
Hypercapnia, also called hypercarbia, is when there is too much carbon dioxide in the blood. It happens when not enough carbon dioxide leaves the lungs. Typically, at the same time, there is not enough oxygen entering the lungs.
What causes hypercapnia?
Health conditions that affect breathing, such as COPD and asthma,
Is hypercarbia the same as hypercapnia?
Yes, people use these terms interchangeably. They both refer to a condition in which there is too much carbon dioxide in the blood. At the same time, there will not be enough oxygen in the blood. This is called hypoxemia.
Hypercapnia is when there is too much carbon dioxide in the blood. Addressing the underlying cause is key to managing symptoms and improving a person’s quality of life.
Anyone who has symptoms that may indicate hypercapnia should consult a doctor. The symptoms may be a sign of an underlying condition that needs treatment.