Respiratory Acidosis

Written by Krista O'Connell | Published on July 2, 2012
Medically Reviewed by George Krucik, MD

What Is Respiratory Acidosis?

Respiratory acidosis, also called respiratory failure or ventilatory failure, causes the pH of blood and other bodily fluids to decrease, making them too acidic.

Respiratory acidosis occurs when the lungs can’t remove enough carbon dioxide (CO2). Excess CO2 makes the blood more acidic. This is because the body must balance the ions that control pH.

Normally, the lungs take in oxygen and exhale CO2. Oxygen passes from the lungs into the blood. CO2 passes from the blood into the lungs. However, sometimes the lungs cannot remove enough CO2. This may cause respiratory acidosis.

Forms of Respiratory Acidosis

There are two forms of respiratory acidosis: acute and chronic.

Acute respiratory acidosis occurs quickly. It is a medical emergency. Left untreated, symptoms will get progressively worse. It can become life-threatening.

Chronic respiratory acidosis develops over time. It does not cause symptoms. Instead, the body adapts to the increased acidity. For example, the kidneys produce more bicarbonate to help maintain balance.

Chronic respiratory acidosis may not cause symptoms. However, it is important to see a doctor, as the underlying cause could be serious.

Signs and Symptoms of Respiratory Acidosis

Initial signs of acute respiratory acidosis include:

  • headache
  • anxiety
  • blurred vision
  • restlessness

Without treatment, other symptoms may occur. These include:

  • sleepiness
  • tremors
  • delirium
  • coma

Common Causes of Respiratory Acidosis

There are many causes of respiratory acidosis. Some common causes of the chronic form are:

  • asthma
  • chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)
  • severe obesity (which can interfere with expansion of the lungs)
  • neuromuscular disorders (such as multiple sclerosis)

Some common causes of the acute form are:

  • obstructed airways (due to choking or other causes)
  • sedative overdose
  • cardiac arrest

How Is Respiratory Acidosis Diagnosed

Several tools can help doctors diagnose respiratory acidosis.

Blood Gas Measurement

This test measures oxygen and CO2 in the blood. High levels of CO2 can indicate acidosis.

Lung Function Tests

Many people with this condition have reduced lung function.

Chest X-Ray

X-rays can help doctors see injuries or other problems likely to cause acidosis.

Treating Respiratory Acidosis

Acute Form

Treating acute acidosis usually means addressing the underlying cause. For example, your airway may need to be cleared. This must be done as soon as possible. Artificial ventilation may also be needed. (Madias)

Chronic Form

With the chronic form of this disease, treatment focuses on managing underlying conditions. The goal is to improve airway function. Some strategies include using:

  • antibiotics (to treat infection)
  • diuretics (to reduce pressure on the heart and lungs)
  • bronchodilators (to expand the airways)
  • corticosteroids (to reduce inflammation)
  • mechanical ventilation (in severe cases)

What Is the Typical Outlook for Someone with Respiratory Acidosis?

Respiratory acidosis has many causes, so it’s difficult to generalize about a long-term outlook. As your outlook largely depends on what is causing your disease, your doctor should be able to give you an idea of what to expect.

Ways to Lower Your Risk for Respiratory Acidosis

The best way to prevent acidosis is to avoid causes of the disease.

Choosing to live a smoke-free lifestyle may help, as smokers are at higher risk for chronic respiratory acidosis. Smoking is bad for lung function. It increases the risk of respiratory diseases and can have an adverse impact on overall quality of life.

Maintaining a healthy weight can reduce your risk of this condition.

Use caution when taking sedatives. They can interfere with your ability to breathe. Sedatives depress the central nervous system. Always read and follow the label. Never take more than is recommended. Mixing sedatives with alcohol can be fatal.

Was this article helpful? Yes No

Thank you.

Your message has been sent.

We're sorry, an error occurred.

We are unable to collect your feedback at this time. However, your feedback is important to us. Please try again later.

Show Sources

Trending Now

Easy Ways to Conceal an Epinephrine Shot
Easy Ways to Conceal an Epinephrine Shot
Learn how to discreetly carry your epinephrine autoinjectors safely and discreetly. It’s easier than you think to keep your shots on hand when you’re on the go.
Migraine vs. Chronic Migraine: What Are the Differences?
Migraine vs. Chronic Migraine: What Are the Differences?
There is not just one type of migraine. Chronic migraine is one subtype of migraine. Understand what sets these two conditions apart.
The Best Multiple Sclerosis iPhone and Android Apps of the Year
The Best Multiple Sclerosis iPhone and Android Apps of the Year
These best multiple sclerosis apps provide helpful information and tools to keep track of your symptoms, including medication reminders.
Numbness, Muscle Pain and Other RA Symptoms
Numbness, Muscle Pain and Other RA Symptoms
The symptoms of RA are more than just joint pain and stiffness. Common symptoms include loss of feeling, muscle pain, and more. Learn more in this slideshow.
Common Asthma Triggers and How to Avoid Them
Common Asthma Triggers and How to Avoid Them
Learn about some of the most common triggers for asthma, as well as measures you can take to minimize your risk of exposure, symptoms, and flares.