What Happens If There Is Too Much Carbon Dioxide in Blood?

Do you know that you always have carbon dioxide in your blood? It is produced when the body uses oxygen to break down glucose for energy. As blood circulates, carbon dioxide is excreted through the lungs and more oxygen gets into your blood. The process is continuous and normal. However, when your blood contains excess carbon dioxide, there is danger of adverse effects, including permanent damage or even death.

What Happens If There Is Too Much Carbon Dioxide in Blood?

Having excess carbon dioxide in blood, also known as hypercapnia is the condition where PaCO2 level is above 45mm Hg. Severe hypercapnia occurs when this level is higher than 75mm Hg.

It is possible to have hypercapnia without realizing it if it is very mild or it develops over a long time. When symptoms occur, they will include headaches, drowsiness and mental fatigue. Because signs of mild hypercapnia are easy to miss, it helps to be aware of the symptoms.

Severe hypercapnia has more pronounced symptoms. This condition can cause respiratory failure and even death. Its symptoms include:

  • Dizziness
  • Rapid breathing
  • Elevated blood pressure
  • Elevated heart rate
  • Flushed skin
  • Twitching muscles

Excess carbon dioxide in blood can lead to temporary or permanent nerve damage. It can also cause seizures, hallucinations, delirium and coma.

When to Visit a Doctor

If you have lung disease and the above symptoms occur, see a doctor immediately as this may indicate a worsening condition. You should also get emergency medical attention in case of breathing difficulty or breathlessness.

What Causes Hypercapnia?

1.       Hypoventilation

Slow or shallow breathing can lead to reduced air exchange or hypoventilation. When this happens, less carbon dioxide is exhaled and less oxygen is inhaled. The result is too much carbon dioxide in blood. When this happens in healthy people, it is temporary and is easily resolved by developing a desire to breathe faster.

But conditions such as sleep apnea, unconsciousness and drug overdose can slow breathing rate, leading to hypoventilation. Lung diseases such as asthma and COPD can also cause blockage of the airways which may result in hypoventilation. Other causes of hypoventilation include injuries to the ribs or muscles linked to breathing.

2.       Inhaled Carbon Dioxide

Acute hypercapnia can also occur due to exposure to excess carbon dioxide in the air. This may be due to pollution or conditions like gases from volcanic eruptions. Carbon dioxide may also be re-inhaled in cases of poor ventilation or use of defective scuba equipment, causing acute hypercapnia. To regain proper gas exchange, seek out a well-ventilated place where you can breathe clean air.

3.       Chronic Hypercapnia

When you have too much carbon dioxide in blood for several days or weeks, the condition is known as chronic hypercapnia. This can happen due to diseases like emphysema, in which the lungs are incapable of adequate gas exchange. Chronic hypercapnia may also result due to other conditions such as seizures, persistent vomiting, dehydration and taking some antacids or other medicines or foods that contain bicarbonate. Other ailments such as kidney disease, heart disease, adrenal disorders and liver disease can also cause chronic hypercapnia.

How to Treat Hypercapnia

Hypercapnia treatment depends on the severity of the problem. However, in all cases, its treatment begins by addressing the cause, although additional procedures may be required.

  • Noninvasive Ventilation: Noninvasive ventilation supports a patient’s gas exchange by providing an air and oxygen mixture, using a flow generator and a tightly fitting facial or nasal oxygen mask.
  • Intubation or Mechanical Ventilation: This involves a tube inserted through the mouth into the airway. The other end of the tube is connected to a mechanical ventilator which assumes the patient’s active breathing process.

Prevention of Hypercapnia

Avoid areas with inadequate ventilation and take steps to provide proper air movement in enclosed spaces. You should also refrain from skipping breaths. If you have a condition such as COPD or are on steroids or diuretics medications, you can prevent too much carbon dioxide in blood by undergoing regular blood tests.

Carbon Dioxide Blood Test

Blood test can help you detect the level of carbon dioxide. CO2 testing measures bicarbonate levels in blood. Normal CO2 level is 23-30 mEq/L. Blood CO2 levels testing helps to find out the impact of conditions like lung diseases, kidney diseases and metabolic problems.    

There is no preparation to do before the test. You will, however, need to declare to your doctor all the medications and other chemicals that you take. This is important because some medications can affect the outcome of the test.

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