Hypercapnia: Causes, Picture, Symptoms and Treatment

Hypercapnia is having too much carbon dioxide in the body. It is a harmful situation that can cause damage to your health. The condition is mostly caused due to your disordered breathing or hypoventilation. It is the problem leading to deprivation of oxygen in the lungs. So, enough carbon dioxide is not emitted from your body. The result is the excessive levels of carbon dioxide in your blood. It is the condition you can commonly experience in your sleep. But, some underlying lung diseases or other health problems can trigger the issue. Read ahead to know more about the problem to take the right steps to avoid complications.

What Is Hypercapnia?

Hypercapnia In normal breathing process, you inhale the air through your nose. It reaches your lungs where it gets separated into oxygen and carbon dioxide. Your body uses oxygen while the carbon dioxide gets exhaled out of your system. In normal cases, your blood will have the oxygen that is sent to different tissues and organs for proper functioning. Hypercapnia also referred to as hypercarbia refers to the excess carbon dioxide levels in your blood. When your breathing process is not normal or cannot get enough oxygen into the lungs, hypercarbia can affect you. The deprivation of fresh oxygen in your body can suddenly leave you gasping for air. The condition also causes problems in getting rid of carbon dioxide. It is important to balance the levels of oxygen and carbon dioxide in your body for its proper functioning.

Normally, the mild cases of hypercapnia is not a cause of concern. It can happen at night when you sleep and your breathing is shallow. In such cases, your body instinctively reacts. So, you may change your position of sleep or get up. It results in your body resuming the normal breathing leading to getting more oxygen in your blood. But, underlying health condition can make the condition severe. Therefore, it can affect your breathing badly and affect your blood.

Symptoms Of Hypercapnia

Based on the symptoms, hypercapnia gets classified into two types, mild and severe.

Mild Hypercapnia

Mild symptoms are easy to correct without any medical intervention. Your body has the capability to correct the symptoms by itself to balance the carbon dioxide levels. So, it makes breathing easier. The mild symptoms of the excessive levels of carbon dioxide include:

  • Drowsiness
  • Flushed Skin
  • Inability to focus
  • Dizzy or feeling disoriented
  • Shortness of breath
  • A mild headache
  • Feeling tired abnormally
  • Immense exhaustion

In normal cases, the condition can last for a few days. But, if it persists, then you need to seek medical assistance. It is helpful to determine the actual problem. So, your doctor can detect hypercapnia or the underlying cause of the problem.

Severe Hypercapnia

Severe hypercapnia is a threatening problem to your overall health. It can lead to shortness of breath. So, you cannot breathe properly. Unlike the mild case, your body cannot correct the severe symptoms by itself. Therefore, you need medical assistance. If you ignore it, then it can harm your health. In serious cases, it can shut down your respiratory system completely. One of the common problem leading to the severe issue is the COPD (Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease). So, you can experience the following symptoms:

  • Passing Out
  • Panic Attack
  • Depression
  • Abnormal feelings of paranoia
  • Feeling Confused
  • Hyperventilation
  • Irregular heartbeat
  • Abnormal muscle twitching
  • Seizure

Causes Of Hypercapnia

Several underlying health conditions can lead to excess carbon dioxide levels in your body. Want to know more? Then scroll below:

COPD (Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease)


It refers to the lung conditions that result in difficulty of breathing. Diseases like emphysema and chronic bronchitis are the most common examples of COPD. The condition is mainly caused due to the inhalation of harmful or polluted air from the environment. Excess smoking can also result in the issue. As time progresses, the COPD can cause your air sacs (alveoli) to lose its ability to stretch due inhaling process. The condition can result in the destruction of walls between the air sacs. Therefore, it restricts your lungs’ ability to take in oxygen effectively.

COPD (Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease) is also the main cause of your windpipe (trachea) and bronchioles (airway leading to alveoli) to become inflamed. The inflammation triggers extra mucus production resulting in difficulty to breathe. Therefore, the block and inflammation impede the free air flow in and out of your lungs. The result is, excess carbon dioxide builds up in your bloodstream causing hypercapnia. Everyone who suffers from COPD is not affected by hypercarbia. But, the progressing of COPD results in the severe imbalance of carbon dioxide and oxygen.

Gas Exchange Problems

Gas Exchange Problems

Dead space in your body can reduce your body’s ability to take in the air for the breathing process. It is mainly caused due to some underlying health issues. So, the air you breathe in does not get utilized completely. It mainly suggests that a part of your respiratory system is not functioning properly. Therefore, it results in your lungs not performing properly. It adversely affects the oxygen and carbon dioxide gas exchange. So, the oxygen enters your bloodstream while the carbon dioxide leaves your body. It is also caused by conditions like emphysema and pulmonary embolus.

Problems With Nerves And Muscles

The different nerve and muscular condition can lead to hypercapnia. The condition can prevent the nerves and muscles aiding the breathing process from working properly. So, it results in the excess accumulation of carbon dioxide in the blood. The conditions causing the problems are:

Guillain-Barré syndrome

It is the rare disorder caused due to your immune system attacking the nerves and muscles. You can experience weakness in your legs and tingling sensation in your legs. The condition is also responsible for the inability of your body to get enough oxygen. So, it results in carbon dioxide accumulation in your blood.

Muscular Dystrophies

It is the group of disorders leading to a degeneration of your muscles. You can suffer from muscle mass loss over a period of time. So, it can result in severe weakness. The problem can make it hard to breathe. Therefore, you get less oxygen leading to hypercapnia.

Genetic Causes

In some cases, a genetic factor influences the excess carbon dioxide accumulation in the blood. The main factor responsible is the limited production of the protein known as alpha-1-antitrypsin. The protein produced by your liver can keep your lungs healthy. When you have a genetic issue, your body fails to produce the protein. Therefore, your liver cannot use it adequately to maintain the health of your lungs.

Sleep Apnea

It is the condition leading to hypercapnia during your sleep. It causes breathing problems when you sleep. With sleep apnea, your breathing frequently stops. It starts again after some time. The irregular breathing pattern can cause hypercarbia. So, it can result in deprivation of oxygen in your blood.


When you carry excess weight in your body, you can experience the issue. Obese people get less air into their lungs. It is due to the excess weight putting pressure on your lungs.

Activities Limiting Breathing

Some recreational activities or medical problems can limit your breathing of fresh air. The fun activities like scuba diving can limit your oxygen intake. So, you can experience difficulty breathing leading to hypercapnia. Patients on a ventilator during the anesthesia process can also experience the difficulty in breathing.

Physical Illness

Physical illness can trigger excess carbon dioxide production in your body. So, a simple event like having a high fever or eating only carbs can lead to hypercapnia.

People At Risk Of Suffering From Hypercapnia

Some people are prone to getting the issue more than the others. The factors that influence the triggering of hypercapnia in people are:

  • Smokers who smoke cigars, cigarettes or pipes heavily. Therefore, people with a smoking habit tend to suffer from the issue more.
  • Age can play an important factor in getting hypercapnia. So, people with age more than 40 years can show the symptoms. The disease is progressive and shows signs over time.
  • People having asthma can feel the shortness of breath. But, asthma and smoking habit together can increase your risk.
  • If you work in an environment with toxic or chemical fumes, then you have more chances of breathing the pollutants. So, people working in chemical plants, warehouses, factories or electrical plants have more chances of getting hypercapnia.
  • People diagnosing the COPD late can suffer from severe complications. It includes the accumulation of excess carbon dioxide.

It is important that you take adequate medical help when you see the symptoms. So, take an appointment with your doctor to ensure you have good health. Treating the health problems at the right time can avoid complications.

Hypercapnia Diagnosis

Your doctor can successfully diagnose hypercapnia with the help of several diagnostic tools. It will help your doctor make a precise assessment. So, the following tests can detect the underlying condition causing the excess carbon dioxide accumulation in your blood.

Physical Examination

Your doctor can diagnose your breathing closely to find the actual problem. If you have a problem, then other tests can help find the actual issue.

Blood Tests

The blood test can find the actual health problem that results in hypercapnia.

Arterial Blood Gas Test

The common test opted by your doctor to diagnose hypercapnia is the arterial blood gas test. The test can successfully assess the carbon dioxide and oxygen levels in your blood. So, it can detect the oxygen pressure. If it is normal, then you have no problem. Else, you need treatment.



It is the diagnostic test to evaluate your breathing. You need to breathe forcefully into a tube. The end of the tube attached to spirometry detects the air capacity in your lungs. It also determines the force with which you can blow the air. Based on the assessment, the doctor can determine the excess levels of carbon dioxide in the body.

Imaging Tests

The imaging tests like the x-rays or CT scans can check the underlying health condition affecting your lungs. So, it helps detect issues like emphysema.

Treatment Options For Hypercapnia

The treatment option mainly depends on the exact cause of the hypercapnia. If you have a disease that triggers the condition, then your doctor takes steps to alleviate the health problem. So, the ideal treatment plan is based on finding the actual cause of the problem. Clearing health issues can relieve the symptoms of excess carbon dioxide in your bloodstream. But, for a severe condition, your doctor can suggest treatment plans like:



Excess carbon dioxide in your body can result in the shortness of breath. Therefore, your doctor puts you in the ventilator. It ensures you breathe properly. Another option to make you breathe properly with intubation. It is the process that helps you breathe without difficulty with the insertion of a tube through the mouth.

The treatment helps you get the oxygen to balance the carbon dioxide levels in your body. So, it can overcome the oxygen deficit due to any of the health issues you suffer. The method is also ideal when you experience respiratory failure or have trouble breathing on your own.


Your doctor can suggest medication to ease your breathing. So, your doctor can suggest the following medications:

  • The bronchodilators are the common medication that your doctor suggests to help the airway muscles work properly.
  • To reduce the inflammation, you need to inhale or take oral corticosteroids. It can minimize discomfort and distress.
  • Respiratory infections like acute bronchitis or pneumonia get treated with antibiotics.



Oxygen therapy is one of the effective therapies to treat the different symptoms of hypercapnia. During the therapy, you need to carry an oxygen device around. It delivers the oxygen straight into your lungs. Your doctor can also suggest pulmonary rehabilitation. It involves changing your diet, exercise routine, and other habits. So, it positively contributes to your overall health. The therapies focus on reducing your symptoms. It also reduces the complication triggered due to an underlying health condition.

Surgical Intervention

In the worst scenario cases, you require the surgery to get the necessary treatment. It can involve replacing the lungs or the damaged airways. During the lung volume reduction surgery, your doctor makes room to healthy tissue by removing the damaged tissue. Therefore, the surgery can help you bring in more oxygen. In rare cases, you need lung transplantation. During the surgery, the unhealthy lung is removed. It is replaced with a healthy lung from an organ donor. The surgeries are quite risky. Therefore, you need to talk to your doctor to check if the surgery is ideal for you or not. It will help you take the right decision for a high-quality life.

Preventing Hypercapnia

Hypercapnia is a condition that you can prevent easily with some simple steps. You can take the necessary steps that will bring positive change to your health. So, you can reduce the risk of carbon dioxide getting accumulated in your blood.

Treating The Underlying Condition

In most cases, an underlying respiratory condition can trigger hypercapnia. Therefore, you need to get the necessary treatment to alleviate the problem. It will help in preventing the worsening of the condition. Subsequently, you can avoid hypercarbia from causing hindrance in your life.

Lifestyle Changes

Making some lifestyle changes can go a long way. Follow some good habits and ditch the harmful ones. It will help you improve the quality of life. You can follow the pointers offered below to ensure good health.

  • If you are a smoker, then you need to quit the habit. Smoking is a bad habit that can affect your health adversely. So, take the necessary help to quit it and save your lungs.
  • Losing excess weight can reduce your risk of getting several diseases. It can also relieve the pressure off your lungs. So, you can breathe better and avoid the complications due to hypercapnia.
  • Include physical exercises in your routine can increase the blood flow to all your organs. So, your organs can get the necessary oxygen supply without any issue. It also prevents the accumulation of carbon dioxide in your body.

By following the steps, you can considerably reduce your risk of getting affected by hypercapnia. Consult your doctor and subject yourself to yearly checkups. It can help in the early diagnosis of any illness. Therefore, you can ensure the effective treatment to alleviate the issues.


You need to understand that the mild cases of hypercapnia can clear itself, but severe cases need treatment. So, you need to consult your doctor to diagnose the underlying issue triggering the problem. In most cases, hypercarbia is a result of COPD. So, you need to get treatment to improve your long-term health. It also prevents future episodes of hypercapnia.

If your doctor suggests a long-term treatment, then you need to listen to your doctor’s advice closely. Follow the treatment plan developed by your doctor religiously. It will help easy recovery. You also need to monitor the symptoms closely and report it to your doctor. With proper care, you can lead a healthy life even with a history of hypercapnia.

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