Hypercapnia is when there is too much carbon dioxide (CO2) in the blood. This is normally caused by hypoventilation of the body which leads to CO2 retention. Hypercapnia is defined as PaCO2 greater than 4.2kPa on an arterial blood gas (ABG).
Hypercapnia can eventually cause hypoxaemia due to reduced respiratory drive.
Type 2 Respiratory Failure
It is caused reduced respiratory drive which commonly is due to a neurological impairment. These neurological impairments could be traumatic or insidious in nature.
On the contrary to hypoxaemia the patient will present as drowsy and with low respiratory rate as a result of the increased CO2 in the brain. 
|Tachycardia||Increased heart rate||HR > 100 bpm|
|Dyspnoea||Deranged respiratory rate||RR inconsistent|
|Bradypnea||Low respiratory rate||RR < 12 bpm|
|Flushed skin||Redness of face or body||May be hyperthermic (not always)|
|Hot calor||Warm extremities||May be hyperthermic (not always)|
|Altered mental state||Confusion, drowsy, difficult to wake|
|Astrexis||Arm flapping||Jerking motion of the hands, inability to stay still|
|Tachypnoae||Increased respiratory rate and shallow/apical breathing, increased accessory muscle use||RR > 20 BPM|
In chronic respiratory diseases, these symptoms can develop over time, however, symptoms can become severe which can lead to coma or death if left untreated.
Hypercapnia has been shown to have the following pathology:
- Increased CO2 in the body can be caused by metabolic compensation or respiratory failure
- A CNS (central nervous system) injury such as guillain-barré syndrome or traumatic brain injury can lead to a reduced respiratory drive
- Reduced respiratory rate leads low tidal volume and hypoventilation
- Causing poor gas exchange in the alveoli
- This causes a retention of CO2 and therefore hypercapnia or type 2 respiratory failure
Causes of Hypercapnia
- Poor ventilation/ perfusion (V/Q) matching leads to reduced gas exchange of O2 and CO2.
- Sputum retention - means there is less surface area for gases to exchange
- Ventilatory pump failure
- Lung hyperinflation
- CO2 retention - uncontrolled oxygen therapy, or receiving too much oxygen, can make people who usually have higher CO2 levels retain more until it reaches dangerous levels.
- Acute CO2 retention is not a reason to reduce FiO2 unless patients have evidence of acute-on-chronic CO2 retention secondary to chronic respiratory disease
- This can be diagnosed by interpretation of recent blood gas results, assessing pH, in relation to PaCO2
- Patients in renal failure may present with an increased work of breathing.
- ABGs will show metabolic acidosis, generally with some form of respiratory compensation e.g. Decreased O2
- Pulmonary oedema and pleural effusion may also be present
- Increased steroid use
Initial treatment of hypercapnia is oxygen therapy with the goal of increasing the inspired oxygen volume. If left untreated or under-treated it is highly likely hypoxia and hypoxaemia will occur.
If low PaO2 and high PaCO2 continues some form of ventilation may be required: CPAP, non-invasive (NIPPV) or invasive depending on the severity or risk to life.  The goal of treatment is to prevent further respiratory failure and hypoxiaemia of the tissues especially the brain.
Chronic hypercapnia is seen in COPD patients and can be managed through different ways:
- Pharmacology: Long acting bronchodilators, anti-inflammation therapy, systemic steroids and antibiotics in the case of acute respiratory failure.
- Pulmonary rehabilitation: exercise therapy to improve quality of life and prevent muscular deconditioning
- Long term oxygen therapy
- Non-invasive ventilation: the use of NIPPV (non-invasive postive-pressure ventilation) can be of use for night-time hypercapnic patients or sleep apoena
- CPAP (continous positive airway pressure): has been used as an alternative to ventilation in management of hypercapia
- Altered mental state and confusion
- Loss of consciousness and coma
- Cardiac arrhythmia
- Hypoxaemia and tissue death
- Irreversible brain damage
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