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Carbon Dioxide Poisoning

Carbon dioxide is a natural by-product of the various reactions that take place inside our body. Exposure to high levels of carbon dioxide can increase the amount of this gas in the blood. The result is carbon dioxide poisoning which is also referred to as hypercapnia or hypercarbia. In our blood, carbon dioxide is in equilibrium with bicarbonates. Hence blood tests in case of hypercapnia may show increased levels of bicarbonates as well.

Hypercapnia or hypercapnea (from the Greek hyper = “above” and kapnos = “smoke”), also known as hypercarbia, normally triggers a reflex which increases breathing and access to oxygen, such as arousal and turning the head during sleep. A failure of this reflex can be fatal, as in sudden infant death syndrome.

Hypercapnia is generally caused by hypoventilation, lung disease, or diminished consciousness. It may also be caused by exposure to environments containing abnormally high concentrations of carbon dioxide (usually due to volcanic or geothermal causes), or by rebreathing exhaled carbon dioxide. It can also be an initial effect of administering supplemental oxygen on a patient with sleep apnea. In this situation the hypercapnia can also be accompanied by respiratory acidosis.

The Symptoms

Mild carbon dioxide poisoning symptoms are:

  • Muscle twitching
  • Reduced neural activity
  • Flushed skin
  • High blood pressure

As the severity of hypercapnia increases, the following carbon dioxide poisoning symptoms may be experienced:

  • Headache
  • Lethargy
  • Elevated rate of cardiac output
  • Irregular heartbeat
  • Panic
  • Convulsions
  • Unconsciousness
  • Eventually death

Treating Carbon Dioxide Poisoning

You should be alert if working in an environment with high levels of carbon dioxide in the air or if suffering from any medical condition that may make a person susceptible to carbon dioxide poisoning. That’s because knowing the cause will help in the treatment. In case a person is suffering from hypercapnia take him out to an environment where there is proper circulation of air. Individuals exposed to mild levels of carbon dioxide in air should recover fully on their own.

However, if it is a case of severe toxicity, caused due to exposure to high levels of carbon dioxide then it is best to call in an ambulance. Ensure that the air passage of the patient is clear of any blockage and in case one has access to continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) put the mask on the patient’s mouth. CPAP helps in restoring normal breathing by providing mechanical ventilation in case the patient’s breathing is compromised. Medications to improve lung functions may also help.

You should ensure that the patient has enough amount of oxygen to breathe. Although such conditions are ideally provided in hospitals, portable oxygen tents or canisters of breathable oxygen can also be of help. Emergency supportive care, such as endotracheal intubation and hemodynamic support should only be under the supervision of healthcare professionals. People may also suffer from hypercapnia in case they are working at high altitudes. In such a case, move the patient to a lower altitude where the air has higher levels of oxygen in the atmosphere. The amounts of acid and oxygen in the blood of a patient should be checked regularly to determine the level of carbon dioxide in blood. Even if the patient recovers, it is always advisable to take him to the physician and follow the levels of carbon dioxide in blood through proper tests.

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