How Does Hypoventilation Cause Hypoxemia?

I often find that my students sometimes confuse oxygenation and ventilation as the same process. In reality they are really very different. Ventilation exchanges air between the lungs and the atmosphere so that oxygen can be absorbed and carbon dioxide can be eliminated. Oxygenation is simply the addition of oxygen to the body. You must understand the difference to understand how hypoventilation causes hypoxia.

If you hyperventilate with room air, you will lower your arterial carbon dioxide content (PaCO2) significantly, but your oxygen levels won’t change much at all. On the other hand, if  you breathe a high concentration of oxygen, but don’t increase or decrease your respiratory rate, your arterial oxygen content (PaO2) will greatly increase, but your PaCO2 won’t change.

Ventilation changes PaCO2. Oxygenation changes PaO2.

Why do we need to understand this? Let’s look at some common examples. Along the way we will painlessly use the Alveolar Gas Equation to explain two common scenarios:

  • how hypoventilation causes hypoxia,
  • why abruptly taking all supplemental oxygen away from a carbon dioxide retainer will hurt them.

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