Carbon Dioxide Toxicity SymptomsHypercapnia, also known as hypercarbia or carbon dioxide toxicity, causes dangerous levels of CO2 in the blood. In most cases, it signals a respiratory problem such as poor lung function, but it can also happen among deep divers, particularly when they do not breathe adequately, or have contaminated oxygen supplies. 


Knowing the signs and symptoms of carbon dioxide toxicity can save lives and equip medical personnel and first responders to act quickly.


Common Causes of Carbon Dioxide Toxicity 

There are a number of ways you can get too much carbon dioxide, including: Conditions that affect gas exchange. Pulmonary embolism and other emergencies may make it impossible for the body to use all the oxygen a person inhales. Diving. Divers have an increased risk of hypercapnia, especially when they hyperventilate, forget to breathe, or dive very quickly and deeply. Dysfunctional equipment may also play a role. Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). Particularly in the later stages of the disease, gas exchange can become a problem. Sleep apnea. Severe sleep apnea may cause a buildup of CO2 that becomes especially dangerous for people with underlying health condition, obese or overweight. People with very high body mass indexes (BMIS) may have trouble getting sufficient oxygen, especially during exertion.


Their risk of anesthesia-related hypercapnia also increases. Some nervous and muscular system disorders. Any condition that affects the body's ability to assess oxygen needs, the brain's ability to control the lungs, or the muscles' ability to control breathing can cause hypercapnia. People with muscular dystrophy and Guillain-Barré syndrome may be especially vulnerable. Rare genetic disorders. Disorders that affect the production of the protein alpha-1-antitrypsin may increase the risk of hypercapnia. Lifestyle issues such as smoking or leading a sedentary lifestyle. Hypoventilation: Hypoventilation is the opposite of hyperventilation. If you don't breathe often or deeply enough, carbon dioxide accumulates to toxic levels.

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Causes include sleep apnea, lung disease, or diminished consciousness. Using dry ice: Dry ice is solid carbon dioxide, and when it changes into carbon dioxide gas, the concentration of CO2 in the air increases. Because carbon dioxide is heavier than air, the risk of carbon dioxide intoxication or poisoning increases the closer you are to the floor, which makes the risk highest to children and pets. Frequenting enclosed spaces: People, pets, and combustion all release carbon dioxide into the air through breathing. Carbon dioxide levels rise in closed rooms, tents, mines, or even under blankets, because gas exchange is reduced. Rebreathing: When you rebreathe air, you extract oxygen, but you add more carbon dioxide each time you exhale. In these cases, carbon dioxide levels may rise rapidly. 


Symptoms of Carbon Dioxide Toxicity 

Mild hypercapnia often causes no symptoms. As toxicity increases, a person may experience symptoms such as: 


  • Drowsiness
  • Headaches Skin that looks flushed Trouble concentrating or thinking clearly
  • Dizziness or disorientation Shortness of breath
  • Hyperventilation 
  • Extreme fatigue 

Severe hypercapnia can cause organ or brain damage, and even death. Some symptoms include: 


  • Confusion Coma Depression, paranoia, panic attacks 
  • Hyperventilating 
  • Irregular heartbeat 
  • Loss of consciousness 

Twitching muscles Seizures 

Carbon dioxide toxicity symptoms are rather nondescript, and can also occur with numerous other ailments, including hypoxia, heart disease, airway obstructions, and more, which makes the symptoms alone are not enough to diagnose hypercapnia. Measuring blood gas can help diagnose this dangerous condition. In some cases, scans of the heart or lungs can help determine the underlying cause. 


Treating Carbon Dioxide Toxicity 

Treating carbon dioxide toxicity requires providers to identify the underlying cause. Ventilation and medication support are key to buying time and saving lives. Though suctioning may help maintain a patent airway in people with diseases that increase the risk of hypercapnia, suctioning also increases CO2 levels. 


Hypercapnia increases in the 10 minutes following suctioning. This means that providers only suction when there are clear indications for doing so, and that they suction for the shortest possible period of time. Preoxygenation may also help reduce carbon dioxide toxicity. 


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Editor's Note: This blog was originally posted July 2020, it has recently been updated with new content.