What is Carbon Dioxide Poisoning?

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  • Written By: Geisha A. Legazpi
  • Edited By: Allegra J. Lingo
  • Last Modified Date: 03 November 2019
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Carbon dioxide poisoning is a condition wherein the body is either unable to eliminate carbon dioxide or it is exposed to levels of carbon dioxide beyond the tolerance level of the body. Also called hypercarbia or hypercapnia, it triggers tachypnea, an increase in the breathing rate to expel the excess carbon dioxide. When this reflex tachypnea fails, it can be fatal. Aside from increased breathing, effects of carbon dioxide poisoning include difficulty breathing, flushed skin, and neurological changes. Treatment involves facilitating the removal of excess carbon dioxide in the blood, usually through intubation, and delivery of oxygen through oxygen tanks.

There are two carbon dioxide poisoning causes: intrinsic causes, when the cause is within the body of the person, and extrinsic causes, when the cause is the elevation of carbon dioxide levels in inhaled air. This condition can occur in people who have a lung problem, such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), and in people who are hypoventilating. It can occur among people who have opioid poisoning or diminished consciousness. Environmental exposure to abnormally elevated levels of carbon dioxide, such as what happens during volcanic eruptions, can also lead to this condition. Frozen carbon dioxide or dry ice exposure may also lead to hypercapnia.


Carbon dioxide poisoning symptoms can be divided into mild symptoms and severe symptoms based on the amount of carbon dioxide inhaled. Mild symptoms occur when the concentration of carbon dioxide is about 1%, or 10,000 parts per million, and these symptoms include muscle twitching or spasm, hand flapping, skin flushing, and reduced alertness. Severe symptoms occur when the levels of carbon dioxide are beyond 5%, and these symptoms include headache, disorientation, hyperventilation, and lethargy. Signs of carbon dioxide poisoning include increased blood pressure, increased rate of breathing, increased or irregular heart rate, and increased cardiac output. These may progress to loss of consciousness, coma, convulsions, and death.

Diagnosis of hypercapnia is done by taking the patient's medical history, looking at the signs and symptoms, and performing laboratory tests. A person is said to have hypercapnia if the carbon dioxide level exceeds 45 millimeters of mercury (mmHg). As a result, the potenz hydrogen (pH) of the blood becomes acidic. The body usually compensates for hypercapnia by increasing the concentration of bicarbonate in the blood. Serum bicarbonate measurement beyond 28 milligrams per deciliter (mg/dL) is also expected in carbon dioxide poisoning.

Carbon dioxide poisoning treatment focuses on both the elimination of the excess carbon dioxide from the body and administration of pure oxygen to maintain normal bodily processes. Emergency measures, including endotracheal incubation and giving intravenous fluids and drugs to regulate the heart rate and cardiac output of the patient, are usually performed. Long term carbon dioxide poisoning effects include deterioration or impairment of nervous functions, including decreased cognition and impaired memory. It is important to prevent this by ensuring that workers exposed to carbon dioxide are provided adequate ventilation.


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