Hypercapnia: What You Need to Know if You Have COPD

Hypercapnia is a condition that becomes more of a problem as COPD progresses and worsens and can be a serious threat to your lung health. So, understanding this condition and its signs and symptoms and what they mean to your health status is crucial.

What is hypercapnia?

This is simply the medical term for having too much carbon dioxide in your bloodstream. Carbon dioxide is a waste gas that is emitted as a by-product of your body's metabolism when oxygen is used. When your inability to breathe correctly results in an imbalance of oxygen and carbon dioxide in your body, hypercapnia is the result.

Mild levels of this imbalance are not usually a cause for concern. But, people who have COPD often have chronic hypercapnia that worsens over time. This can result in serious problems if left untreated.

Hypercapnia signs and symptoms

Symptoms can range from mild to severe. Mild symptoms to be on the lookout for include:

Often, these symptoms will go away if you focus on breathing better. But, if they last for a few days, or you notice any of the following more severe symptoms, you should contact your doctor or seek emergency care as soon as you can:

  • More severe confusion
  • Loss of consciousness
  • Depression or feelings of panic or paranoia
  • Excessive breathing
  • An irregular heartbeat
  • Muscle twitching
  • Seizures

Treatment and prevention

As stated above, mild hypercapnia is common as COPD progresses. But left unchecked or allowed to worsen as your disease progresses, it can deteriorate into more serious conditions. This includes respiratory acidosis (a low pH level in the lungs). That event can cause hypoxia, or lack of oxygen to your body tissues. Eventually, respiratory failure and death may result.

Supplemental oxygen therapy is known to be a lifesaver for people with COPD. In fact, other than quitting smoking, it is the best method for improving survival. But it is a double-edged sword. Too much oxygen can actually trigger or worsen hypercapnia in people who have COPD. This is why it is so important to work closely with your health care team to develop the exactly right oxygen therapy regime for you and your ongoing lung and health status.

It's important to get only as much oxygen into your body as needed to produce an oxygen saturation level of about 90%. Using a pulse oximeter at home can help you monitor this. You should never increase your oxygen flow rate beyond what your doctor prescribes. If you're feeling air hunger or short of breath, then call the doctor for advice. Don't just turn up the flow on your concentrator or oxygen tank.

In severe cases of hypercapnia, medication or ventilation may be used but may require hospitalization.

As with all aspects of COPD, managing your symptoms and working closely with your healthcare team are the keys to maintaining your health status, as well as your quality of life.

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