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A Recap of Ventilation v Oxygenati

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Despite seeming similar, the terms ventilation and oxygenation relate to two separate (albeit interdependent) physiological processes. Understanding the difference between the two is critical in being able to effectively treat patients and make appropriate clinical decisions (Galvagno 2012).

When confronted with a patient who is having respiratory difficulties, it is important to know whether they need help ventilating (getting air in and out of their lungs), or if they need oxygen due to hypoxaemia (impaired gas exchange).

Early detection of respiratory decline reduces the incidence of medical emergencies, the need for mechanical ventilation and the need for ICU admission. Therefore, having adequate knowledge about respiratory anatomy and physiology means you will be able to respond to patients correctly and hopefully prevent deterioration (Vincent et al. 2018).


What is the Difference Between Ventilation and Oxygenation? Ventilation

Ventilation can be considered the act of normal, spontaneous breathing. It refers to the two processes of inspiration and exhalation, i.e. the movement of air in and out of the lungs. (Pandirajan 2020).

These processes form a delivery system that provides the alveoli with oxygen-rich air (Reminga & King 2016).


Inspiration is initiated by the contraction of the inspiratory muscles (diaphragm and external intercostal muscles), which increases the volume of the thoracic cavity and subsequently the lungs. This creates a negative pressure that allows the air to be easily drawn into the lungs (Pandirajan 2020).


Expiration is the opposite process, wherein the inspiratory muscles relax and cause the volume of the thoracic cavity and lungs to decrease. This creates a positive pressure that forces the air to move out of the lungs (Pandirajan 2020).


Ventilation can be measured by assessing clinical signs (chest rise, compliance and respiratory rate) (Galvagno 2012



Oxygenation is the delivery of oxygen to the tissues to maintain cellular activity (Reminga & King 2016).


It is part of the gas exchange process, wherein oxygenation occurs simultaneously with the elimination of carbon dioxide from the bloodstream to the lungs (Dezube 2019; Kaynar 2020).


These gases (oxygen and carbon dioxide) are transported through passive diffusion across the membrane, meaning the gas exchange process requires no energy expenditure from the individual (Wagner 2015).


Oxygenation can not be measured by assessing clinical signs alone; it generally requires a pulse oximeter (Galvagno 2012).


Respiratory Failure

Understanding the difference between ventilation and oxygenation is crucial when confronted with a patient suffering from respiratory failure - caused by an inability to maintain blood oxygen levels, an excessive amount of carbon dioxide levels in the blood, or both at once (Tidy 2015; MedlinePlus 2016).

There are four types of respiratory failure:

  • Type I, an oxygenation issue causing low oxygen and normal to low levels of carbon dioxide.
  • Type II, a ventilation issue causing low oxygen and high levels of carbon dioxide.
  • Type IIII (perioperative).
  • Type IV (shock).
  • (Shebl & Burns 2019; Melanson n.d.)

    In order to appropriately respond to a patient, you need to determine the kind of difficulty they are facing.

    Type I Respiratory Failure (Hypoxaemia)

    Type I, also known as hypoxaemic respiratory failure, occurs when an individual is unable to oxygenate adequately. It is clinically defined by an arterial oxygen tension (PaO2) of less than 60mmHg (on room air). Carbon dioxide levels are normal or low. It is the most common type of respiratory failure (Kaynar 2020).

    Type I is generally associated with acute lung diseases that cause fluid or sputum to occupy the alveoli (oxygen cannot swim through fluid or infection) or collapse of alveolar units (Kaynar 2020).

    Oxygen therapy is generally required to treat patients with hypoxaemia (Shebl & Burns 2019).

    Causes include:

    • Pulmonary oedema;
    • Pneumonia;
    • Pulmonary haemorrhage;
    • Atelectasis;
    • Pulmonary embolism;
    • Acute respiratory distress syndrome;
    • COPD;
    • Pulmonary fibrosis;
    • Asthma;
    • Pulmonary hypertension; and
    • Pneumothorax.

    (Shebl & Burns 2019; Physiopedia 2019)


    Symptoms include:

    • Confusion;
    • Shortness of breath;
    • Irritability;
    • Tachycardia (abnormally fast heartbeat);
    • Tachypnea (abnormally rapid breathing); and
    • Bluish tinge to the skin.

    (Shebl & Burns 2019)


    Type II Respiratory Failure (Hypercapnia)

    Type II, also known as hypercapnic respiratory failure, occurs when there is excess carbon dioxide in the bloodstream. This is usually caused by hypoventilation, i.e. the patient is unable to ventilate adequately enough to draw in the amount of oxygen needed. This results in unbalanced gas exchange, causing carbon dioxide to accumulate (Patel, Miao & Majmundar 2020; Jewell 2017; Malhotra 2012).

    It is clinically defined by an arterial carbon dioxide pressure (PaCO2) of over 50mmHg and may occur along with hypoxaemia (Shebl & Burns 2019).

    Ventilatory support (invasive or non-invasive, depending on the clinical situation) is generally required to treat patients with hypercapnia (Shebl & Burns 2019).

    It is caused by conditions that impede ventilation such as:

    • COPD;
    • Asthma;
    • Acute neuromuscular disease;
    • Pneumothorax;
    • Airway obstruction;
    • Drug overdose;
    • Poisoning;
    • Head and neck injuries;
    • Pulmonary oedema; and
    • Adult respiratory distress syndrome.

    (Tidy 2015)

    Symptoms include:

    • Headache;
    • Shortness of breath;
    • Confusion;
    • Change of behaviour;
    • Decreased conscious state or unconsciousness;
    • Seizures;
    • Agitation;
    • Warm extremities; and
    • Hand tremors.

    (Shebl & Burns 2019; WebMD 2019)

    Hypercapnia is a medical emergency that can be fatal if untreated (WebMD 2019)



    Patients experiencing respiratory failure will require the appropriate intervention. It is crucial to differentiate whether it is a ventilation or oxygenation issue and treat the patient accordingly.

    Care must be escalated to the medical team in the event of deterioration, as early intervention is vital to ensure mortality is decreased and invasive ventilation (if needed) is minimised.


    Additional Resources
    • Patient.info, Respiratory Failure, https://patient.info/doctor/respiratory-failure
    • Hypoxaemia: Reversible Causes of Cardiac Arrest, https://www.ausmed.com.au/cpd/articles/hypoxaemia
    • Administering Non-invasive Ventilation (NIV), https://www.ausmed.com.au/cpd/articles/non-invasive-ventilation
    Multiple Choice Questions Q1. True or false? Type II respiratory failure is an oxygenation issue.
  • True
  • False
  • Q2. What are the carbon dioxide levels of a patient experiencing type I respiratory failure?
  • Low
  • Low or normal.
  • Normal
  • High
  • Q3. True or false? A patient’s ventilation can be assessed using clinical signs.
  • True
  • False
  • References
    • Dezube, R 2019, ‘Exchanging Oxygen and Carbon Dioxide’, Merck Manuals, viewed 30 April 2020, https://www.merckmanuals.com/home/lung-and-airway-disorders/biology-of-the-lungs-and-airways/exchanging-oxygen-and-carbon-dioxide
    • Ga lvagno, S M 2012, ‘Understanding Ventilation Vs. Oxygenation is Key in Airway Management’, Journal of Emergency Medical Services, vol. 37 no. 11, viewed 29 April 2020, https://www.jems.com/2012/11/19/understanding-ventilation-vs-oxygenation/
    • Jewell, T 2017, Hypercapnia: What Is It and How Is It Treated?, Healthline, viewed 30 April 2020, https://www.healthline.com/health/hypercapnia
    • Kaynar, A M 2020, ‘Respiratory Failure’,MedScape, viewed 30 April 2020, https://emedicine.medscape.com/article/167981-overview
    • Malhotra, A 2012, ‘Disorders of Ventilatory Control’, Goldman's Cecil Medicine (Twenty Fourth Edition), viewed 30 April 2020, https://www.sciencedirect.com/topics/medicine-and-dentistry/hypoventilation
    • Med linePlus 2016, Respiratory Failure, MedlinePlus, viewed 30 April 2020, https://medlineplus.gov/respiratoryfailure.html
    • Melanson, P n.d., Acute Respiratory Failure, McGill Critical Care Medicine, viewed 29 April 2020, https://www.mcgill.ca/criticalcare/teaching/files/acute
    • Pandirajan, K 2020, Mechanics of Breathing, TeachMe Physiology, viewed 29 April 2020, https://teachmephysiology.com/respiratory-system/ventilation/mechanics-of-breathing/
    • Patel, S, Miao, J H & Majmundar, S H 2020, ‘Physiology, Carbon Dioxide Retention’, StatPearls, viewed 30 April 2020, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK482456/
    • Physiopedia 2019, Respiratory Failure, Physiopedia, viewed 30 April 2020, https://www.physio-pedia.com/Respiratory_Failure
    • Reminga, C & King, L G 2016, ‘Oxygenation and Ventilation’, Monitoring and Intervention for the Critically Ill Small Animal: The Rule of 20, viewed 29 April 2020, https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/9781118923870.ch8
    • Shebl, E & Burns, B 2019, ‘Respiratory Failure’, StatPearls, viewed 29 April 2020, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK526127/
    • Tidy, C 2015, Respiratory Failure, Patient.info, viewed 30 April 2020, https://patient.info/doctor/respiratory-failure
    • Vincent, J et al. 2018, ‘Improving Detection of Patient Deterioration in the General Hospital Ward Environment’, Eur J Anaesthesiol, vol. 35 no. 5, viewed 29 April 2020, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5902137/
    • Wagner, P D 2015, ‘The Physiological Basis of Pulmonary Gas Exchange: Implications for Clinical Interpretation of Arterial Blood Gases’, European Respiratory Journal, vol. 45 no. 1, viewed 29 April 2020,https://erj.ersjournals.com/content/45/1/227
    • WebMD 2019, Hypercapnia (Hypercarbia), WebMD, viewed 30 April 2020, https://www.webmd.com/lung/copd/hypercapnia-copd-related#1


    (Answers: b, b, a)




    Ausmed Editorial Team

    Ausmed’s Editorial team is committed to providing high-quality and thoroughly researched content to our readers, free of any commercial bias or conflict of interest. All articles are developed in consultation with healthcare professionals and peer reviewed where necessary, undergoing a yearly review to ensure all healthcare information is kept up to date. See Educator Profile




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