Hypercapnia: Causes, Symptoms, Diagnosis, and Treatment

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HypercapniaThere are many medical conditions you may have heard of and don’t know what they are, like hypercapnia, for example.

What is hypercapnia? This condition is the result of having too much carbon dioxide (Co2) in your blood. It could mean nothing, or it could be the sign of an underlying problem that needs to be taken care of.

In this guide to hypercapnia (also known as hypercarbia), we will discuss the hypercapnia definition and how the condition relates to chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), as well as hypercapnia causes, symptoms, treatments, and what exactly high carbon dioxide in the blood means for your health.

The Relationship Between Hypercapnia and COPD

One of the first things you will see when you search for information on hypercapnia is a medical condition called COPD. This condition includes lung diseases like chronic bronchitis and emphysema, which cause obstructed airflow from the lungs.

COPD can make breathing hard, especially if it affects or destroys the alveoli (air sacks) in your lungs or inflames the bronchioles. This can cause the levels of carbon dioxide to rise in your blood, as the lungs are having a hard time exchanging the carbon dioxide for oxygen. Now, this might not instantly lead to hypercapnia, but over a prolonged period, COPD can be a contributing factor.

The Causes of Hypercapnia

So, we’ve established that COPD can cause hypercapnia, but what else can cause elevated Co2 levels in the blood stream? The basic answer is that anything that can prevent the exchange of carbon dioxide in your body for oxygen is a potential cause. It can range from COPD and other diseases to medical conditions that arise. Other common causes include:

  • Obesity hypoventilation syndrome
  • Hypothermia
  • Metabolic disorders, like low phosphate and magnesium levels in the bloodstream
  • Brainstem stroke
  • Muscle or nervous system disorders, such as muscular dystrophy, encephalitis, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), or myasthenia gravis
  • Obstructive sleep apnea
  • Genetic conditions where the body doesn’t produce enough alpha-1-antitrypsin (a protein that is used by the body to keep the lungs healthy)
  • End-stage interstitial lung disease (ILD)
  • Gas exchange problems caused by conditions like pulmonary embolus and emphysema

Now that you know what can cause the condition, it’s time to look into the symptoms of hypercapnia, which helps the doctor diagnose the condition and treat it as soon as possible.

Hypercapnia Symptoms

The symptoms for hypercapnia are pretty much what one might expect from something that builds up Co2 in the blood stream and makes it hard to breathe on the whole. The symptoms themselves fall into two categories: mild and severe. Typical mild symptoms may include:

  • Mild headaches
  • Flushed skin
  • Drowsiness or inability to focus
  • Being abnormally tired or exhausted
  • Feeling disoriented or dizzy
  • Feeling short of breath

Now, everyone may get symptoms like those we listed above every once and a while. But, if they persist beyond a few days, it’s a good idea to get a doctor to take a look at you to confirm if you have hypercapnia or not.

If you are suffering from severe symptoms, they can be a little more drastic and can include:

  • Seizures
  • Unexplained feelings of confusion
  • Abnormal feelings of paranoia or depression
  • Hyperventilation
  • Irregular heartbeat
  • Abnormal muscle twitching
  • Panic attacks
  • Fainting

These symptoms usually indicate hypercapnia, as well as an underlying issue that is causing it. Given how severe and unpleasant all of these symptoms sound, you’ll want to get it diagnosed as soon as possible, so you can make sure that you begin treatment early.

Hypercapnia Treatment

There are treatments for hypercapnia, but it can change depending on the situation. If your condition is the result of an underlying condition like obesity or sleep apnea, the cause of the condition is treated first. In most instances, once the cause is treated, the hypercapnia will disappear on its own. But if the condition is too severe, you may be given other treatment routes.

1. Medications

There are a few medications that may be able to help you out. They can include antibiotics for respiratory infections and bronchodilators to help your airway muscles work properly. The doctor may also prescribe inhaled or oral corticosteroids to help keep airway inflammation to a minimum.

2. Ventilation

If the Co2 build up is too great or you are having too many breathing issues, you may be hooked up to a breathing machine in the hospital known as a ventilator. This machine can pump air directly to your lungs to help get your oxygen levels up and your Co2 levels down.

3. Surgery

If part of your breathing system has been too damaged, hence not exchanging enough Co2 for oxygen, you may have to have surgery to repair or even replace the organ or tissue that is doing the damage. These types of surgeries tend to be rather risky and are usually done as a last resort.

4. Oxygen Therapy

As a simple solution, you may have to carry an oxygen tank with you and get part of your air supply directly to your lungs through this method.

While there is no magic wand to make the hypercapnia better, it is good to know that there are multiple treatment options that can help you potentially gain back your oxygen.

Hypercapnia Should Be Checked Out

The one thing we would like to stress here is that if you have some hypercapnia symptoms, it would be a good idea to see a doctor and get it checked out. If caught early enough or if the underlying condition is easily dealt with, you may be back to normal quickly. It may be as simple as getting your weight under better control or a bit of medication to fix the problem.

However, if the condition is left too long, hypercapnia can cause extensive damage, and you may be looking at life-changing surgery. In these types of situations, always err on the side of caution. The last thing you want to do is have a lung transplant and deal with all of the complications that come with it just because you thought you’d be fine.


Jewell, T., “Hypercapnia: What Is It and How Is It Treated?” Healthline, May 2, 2017; http://www.healthline.com/health/hypercapnia#overview1, last accessed July 6, 2017.
Leader, D., “The Link Between COPD and Hypercapnia Causes, Symptoms, and Treatment of Carbon Dioxide Retention in the Blood,” Very Well, July 6, 2017; https://www.verywell.com/hypercapnia-symptoms-treatment-914862, last accessed July 6, 2017.