Respiratory acidosis is a condition in which a build-up of carbon dioxide in the blood produces a shift in the body's pH balance and causes the body's system to become more acidic. This condition is brought about by a problem either involving the lungs and respiratory system or signals from the brain that control breathing.
Respiratory acidosis is an acid imbalance in the body caused by a problem related to breathing. In the lungs, oxygen from inhaled air is exchanged for carbon dioxide from the blood. This process takes place between the alveoli (tiny air pockets in the lungs) and the blood vessels that connect to them. When this exchange of oxygen for carbon dioxide is impaired, the excess carbon dioxide forms an acid in the blood. The condition can be acute with a sudden onset, or it can develop gradually as lung function deteriorates.
Causes & symptoms
Respiratory acidosis can be caused by diseases or conditions that effect the lungs themselves, such as emphysema, chronic bronchitis, asthma, or severe pneumonia. Blockage of the airway due to swelling, a foreign object, or vomit can induce respiratory acidosis. Drugs like anesthetics, sedatives, and narcotics can interfere with breathing by depressing the respiratory center in the brain. Head injuries or brain tumors can also interfere with signals sent by the brain to the lungs. Such neuromuscular diseases as Guillain-Barré syndrome or myasthenia gravis can impair the muscles around the lungs making it more difficult to breath. Conditions that cause chronic metabolic alkalosis can also trigger respiratory acidosis.
The most notable symptom will be slowed or difficult breathing. Headache, drowsiness, restlessness, tremor, and confusion may also occur. A rapid heart rate, changes in blood pressure, and swelling of blood vessels in the eyes may be noted upon examination. This condition can trigger the body to respond with symptoms of metabolic alkalosis, which may include cyanosis, a bluish or purplish discoloration of the skin due to inadequate oxygen intake. Severe cases of respiratory acidosis can lead to coma and death.
Respiratory acidosis may be suspected based on symptoms. A blood sample to test for pH and arterial blood gases can be used to confirm the diagnosis. In this type of acidosis, the pH will be below 7.35. The pressure of carbon dioxide in the blood will be high, usually over 45 mmHg.
Treatment focuses on correcting the underlying condition that caused the acidosis. In patients with chronic lung diseases, this may include use of a bronchodilator or steroid drugs. Supplemental oxygen supplied through a mask or small tubes inserted into the nostrils may be used in some conditions, however, an oversupply of oxygen in patients with lung disease can make the acidosis worse. Antibiotics may be used to treat infections. If the acidosis is related to an overdose of narcotics, or a drug overdose is suspected, the patient may be given a dose of naloxone, a drug that will block the respiratory-depressing effects of narcotics. Use of mechanical ventilation like a respirator may be necessary. If the respiratory acidosis has triggered the body to compensate by developing metabolic alkalosis, symptoms of that condition may need to be treated as well.
If the underlying condition that caused the respiratory acidosis is treated and corrected, there may be no long term effects. Respiratory acidosis may occur chronically along with the development of lung disease or respiratory failure. In these severe conditions, the patient may require the assistance of a respirator or ventilator. In extreme cases, the patient may experience coma and death.
Patients with chronic lung diseases and those who receive sedatives and narcotics need to be monitored closely for development of respiratory acidosis.
- A measurement of acid or alkali (base) of a solution based on the amount of hydrogen ions available. Based on a scale of 14, a pH of 7.0 is neutral. A pH below 7.0 is an acid; the lower the number, the stronger the acid. A pH above 7.0 is a base; the higher the number, the stronger the base. Blood pH is slightly alkali with a normal range of 7.36-7.44.
For Your Information
- "Acid-Base Disturbances." In Cecil Textbook of Medicine, 20th ed., Philadelphia: W.B. Saunders Company, 1996.
- "Fluid & Electrolyte Disorders." In Current Medical Diagnosis & Treatment 1998, 37th ed., Stamford, CT: Appleton & Lange, 1998.
- "Fluid, Electrolyte, and Acid-Base Disorders." In Family Medicine Principles and Practices, 5th ed. New York: Springer-Verlag, 1998.
- "Acidosis and Alkalosis." In Harrison's Principles of Internal Medicine, 14th ed., New York: McGraw-Hill, 1998.
Gale Encyclopedia of Medicine. Gale Research, 1999.