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Effect of acute hyperventilation on the venous-arterial PCO2 difference

I read with great interest the letter by Morel and colleagues [1] in the previous issue of Critical Care. The letter suggested that acute changes in the arterial partial pressure of carbon dioxide (PaCO2) can affect the venous-arterial difference in carbon dioxide tension (ΔCO2). In a study by the authors, 10 ventilated and hemodynamically stable patients were included after elective cardiac surgery. Hypocapnia was induced by increasing the respiratory rate. The authors found that a decrease of PaCO2 was associated with a significant increase in ΔCO2. This was explained by the fact that acute hypocapnia resulted in systemic vasoconstriction, thus decreasing the elimination of the total CO2 produced by the peripheral tissues and increasing the gap. However, as all patients were monitored with a pulmonary artery catheter (PAC), the authors should have shown whether there was any increase in systemic vascular resistance to support their hypothesis. Furthermore, there is another possible explanation of the ΔCO2 increase induced by the decrease in PaCO2. Indeed, acute respiratory alkalosis has been shown to increase systemic oxygen consumption and CO2 production [2, 3]. Thus, for a given venous blood flow, the increase of tissue CO2 production should increase the partial pressure of carbon dioxide (PCO2) gap.

On the other hand, it is unclear why the authors have used the central venous sample to calculate ΔCO2 instead of using the mixed venous sample (PAC), which is the gold standard. If a PAC is in place, the clinical utility of an alternative method of measurement is diminished even though the mixed and central PCO2 difference showed good agreement [4]. Nevertheless, I agree that acute hyperventilation could be a potential limitation of the clinical application of the ΔCO2.

Authors' response

Jerome Morel and Laurent Gergele

We thank Mallat for his comments. Indeed, we hypothesized that hypocapnia resulted in microcirculatory vasoconstriction, thus decreasing the elimination of CO2 produced by the peripheral tissues and increasing the venous-arterial CO2 gradient [1]. Only specific microcirculatory monitoring can answer this question. Measurement of systemic vascular resistance could not help as microcirculation and systemic circulation are relatively dissociated, particularly when systemic hemodynamics are within normal ranges (as was the case in our study) [5].

As mentioned, it has been shown that central venous CO2 and mixed venous CO2 were in good agreement for the calculation of venous-arterial CO2 gradient, as was the case in our study (data not shown). We chose to present central venous data because nowadays patients are more frequently monitored with a central venous catheter than a PAC. However, Mallat raised an interesting hypothesis concerning the effects of acute respiratory alkalosis on systemic oxygen consumption and CO2 production, which could be an explanation of our results [2].



venous-arterial difference in carbon dioxide tension


carbon dioxide


pulmonary artery catheter


arterial partial pressure of carbon dioxide


partial pressure of carbon dioxide.


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Correspondence to Jihad Mallat.

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The author declares that they have no competing interests.

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Mallat, J. Effect of acute hyperventilation on the venous-arterial PCO2 difference. Crit Care 16, 408 (2012).

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  • Systemic Vascular Resistance
  • Pulmonary Artery Catheter
  • Venous Sample
  • Venous Blood Flow
  • Arterial Partial Pressure