The hypoxic drive myth

It was difficult to go through any single month in medical school without being reminded that giving oxygen to chronic CO2 retainers abolishes their respiratory drive (which in these patients is apparently dependent on hypoxia).

This is taught with similar vigour in nursing schools.

There is one small problem with this elegant concept. To quote Blackadder; “it is complete bollocks”.

The concept was developed in 1949 and we have held onto it with fervour ever since. I would not wish to minimise the efforts of physicians who precede us, but for context the year 1949 predates the invention of CPR.


This graph (1) from 1980 shows what happens when patients with COPD and acute respiratory failure are given uncontrolled high flow oxygen for 15 minutes. The first thing to note is that the ventilatory drive (minute ventilation – VE) is supranormal to begin with (normal is about 5L/min). The graph is produced here with no permission whatsoever.

The second thing is that after a brief, not particularly significant, drop in the minute ventilation in the first few minutes, it pretty much returns to baseline. The last is the lack of correlation between minute ventilation and the rise in CO2 (which has been confirmed in subsequent studies).

So how does uncontrolled oxygen result in worsening hypercapnia in chronic CO2 retainers? It seems two main mechanisms are at play. The first is that oxygen displaces CO2 off of haemoglobin- the Haldane effect. The second is that usually the blood flow in the lungs is directed away from crappy hypoxic alveoli to healthy alveoli where the CO2 can be properly eliminated (hypoxic pulmonary vasoconstriction). Supplying crappy alveoli with excess oxygen reverses this process.

So, yes, uncontrolled oxygen can make respiratory failure worse, but it will not make your patient stop breathing. Which is important to know. If the patient has a respiratory arrest it is likely because they were tiring out and heading there anyway, not because you weren’t stingy enough with the oxygen.

It is also important to realise that the patient saturations give a good indication of how much oxygen their alveoli are seeing (it is this that determines how much hypoxic pulmonary vasoconstriction goes on). People obsess about the flow rate on the wall, but really the flow rate does not tell you how much oxygen is getting into crappy alveoli. As long as you are hitting a more conservative oxygen saturation target of 88-92%, you are fine.


  1. Crit Care. 2012; 16(5): 323. Published online 2012 Oct 29. doi: 10.1186/cc11475. PMCID: PMC3682248 PMID: 23106947. Oxygen-induced hypercapnia in COPD: myths and facts. Wilson F Abdo  and Leo MA Heunks