Wednesday, November 19, 2008

ABG interpretation made easy

So you made it this far.  Now you must interpret the results.  
So you are an intelligent RT student or RN who wishes to learn more about how to interpret ABGs. That in mind, and based on popular demand, here is ABG interpretations made easy

(For simplicity reasons I will only refer to the three basic ABG values in this post: pH (acid base balance), CO2 (carbon dioxide) and HcO3 (bicarbonate).

Normal ABG values are as follows:
  1. pH (acid base balance) = 7.35 to 7.45  
  2. CO2 (carbon dioxide) = 35 to 45 
  3. HcO3 (bicarbonate) = 22 to 26
You also must note the following:
  1. CO2 greater than 45 is acidotic
  2. HcO3 less than 22 is acidotic
  3. Co2 less than 35 is alkalotic
  4. HcO3 greater than 26 is alkalotic
How to interpret ABGs?

All you have to do is memorize four basic questions and then answer them in order:

A. Is the ABG normal? If all of them are, then you have a normal ABG and you can stop here. If any one of the values is out of the normal range, then you must move on to the next question.

B. Is the pH Acidotic or Alkalotic?: To determine this you look only at the pH.
  1. Alkalotic: If the pH is greater than 7.40 the patient is Alkalotic.
  2. Acidotic: If the pH is below 7.40 the patient is acidotic.
C. Is the cause respiratory or metabolic?: To determine this, you look at pH and compare it with HcO3 and CO2. If the pH is acidotic, you look for whichever value (HcO3 or CO2) that is also acidotic. If the pH is alkalotic, you look for whichever value (HcO3 or CO2) is also alkalotic.

In this sense, you match the pH with HcO3 and CO2. If the pH matches with the CO2, you have respiratory. If the pH matches with the HcO3, you have metabolic.

Or, put more simply:
  1. Metabolic Alkalosis: If the pH is alkatotic and the HcO3 alkalotic.
  2. Respiratory Alkalosis: If the pH is alkalotic and the CO2 is alkalotic
  3. Metabolic Acidosis: If the pH is acidotic and the HcO3 acidotic.
  4. Respiratory Acidisis: If the pH is acidotic and the CO2 is acidotic.
A special case here would be if the pH matches both the CO2 and HCO3, you have combined acidosis or combined alkalosis.  For example, if the pH is acidotic, CO2 is acidotic and HCO3 is acidotic, you have combined acidosis.  If the pH is alkalotic, CO2 is alkalotic, and HCO3 is alkalotic, you have combined alkalosis.  

D. Is the cause compensated or uncompensated?
  1. Compensated: pH is anywhere inside the normal ranges (Anything between 7.35 to 7.45)
  2. Uncompensated: pH is anywhere outside the normal ranges (greater than 7.45 or less than 7.35, and the value (CO2 or HCO3) that does not match the pH will still be in the normal range.  
  3. Partially compensated: pH is anywhere outside the normal ranges, and the value that does not match the pH will be outside its normal range, indicating the body is attempting to get the pH back to normal.  For example, if the pH (7.20) and CO2 (50) are acidotic, the HCO3 should be on the alkalotic side (27). 
Put A, B, C, and D together and you have your basic ABG interpretation.  That's it.  It's easy.

So, here are some examples:

1. Ph 7.40, CO2 37, HcO3 23

What do you have here? All the number are within normal range, so you have a normal ABG.

That was easy enough. You need to go no further in analyzing this ABG.

2. ph 7.23, CO2 50, HcO3 22

What do you have here?

A. Is the ABG normal? You can see right away that the pH and CO2 are out of the normal range, so you must move on to the next question.

B. Is the pH acidotic or alkalotic? Since the pH is less than 7.40 it is acidotic.

C. Is is metabolic or respiratory? Since the pH is acidotic and the CO2 also acidotic, then you have respiratory acidosis.

D. Is it compensated or uncompensated? Well, the pH is outside the normal range of 7.35 to 7.45, and the HCO3 is still in the normal range, the ABG is uncompensated. You don't have to look at any other values. You are done.

The ABG is uncompensated respiratory acidosis

2. pH 7.36, CO2 50, HcO3 29,

A. Is the ABG normal? You can see right away that both CO2 and HcO3 are out of the normal range, so you move on to the next question.

B. Is is acidotic or alkalotic: The pH is less than 7.40, so it is acidotic

C. Is the cause respiratory or metabolic?: The pH is acidotic and the CO2 is also acidotic, so you have respiratory acidosis.

D. Is it compensated or uncompensated? Since the pH is within normal limits, it is compensated.

In this example you have compensated respiratory acidosis.

3. pH 7.50, CO2 42, HcO3 33

A. Is the ABG normal? No. Some of the values are outside the normal ranges.

B. Is it acidotic or alkalotic? The pH is greater than 7.40, so it is alkalotic.

C. Is the cause respiratory or metabolic?: You know the pH is alkalotic, so you look for the matching value. The HcO3 is alkalotic, so it matches the pH. So, what you have is a metabolic problem.

D. Is it compensated or uncompensated? Since the pH is outside the normal range of 7.35 to 7.45, it is uncompensated.

Thus, you have uncompensated metabolic alkalosis.

4. pH 7.50, CO2 18, HcO3 24

A. Is the ABG normal? No, pH and CO2 are both out of the normal range.

B. Is it acidosis or alkalosis? Since the pH is greater than 7.40 it is alkalosis

C. Is is respiratory or metabolic? Since the pH is alkalotic and the CO2 is also alkalotic, you have a respiratory problem

D. Is is compensated or uncompensated: It is uncompensated because the pH is outside the normal range of 7.35 to 7.45.

What you have here is uncompensated respiratory alkalosis.

5.  pH 7.07, CO2 89.3, HcO3 26,

A.  Is the ABG normal?  No, all the numbers are out of the normal range

B.  Is it acidosis or alkalosis?  Since the pH is less than 7.40 it is acidotic

C.  Is it respiratory or metabolic?  Since the pH, CO2, and HCO3 are all acidotic, you have a special case called combined acidosis.

D.  Is is compensated or uncompensated? Since the pH is outside the 7.35 to 7.45 range, and the HCO3 is inside its normal range, the ABG is uncompensated.

What you have here is a case of uncompensated combined acidosis. Now, had the HCO3 in this example been on the alkalotic side of its normal range (say 27) this ABG would have been partially uncompensated.

Once you practice these you will be able to do these automatically in your head in only a few seconds just by looking at the numbers. Now you will want to move on to ABG interpretation made easy part II and, once you have oxygenation mastered, you click here for some more advanced ABG examples.

If this post helped, please leave a comment below and let me know.  Thank you. 

Further reading: 
  1. The ABG lexicon
  2. More RT tips
  3. ABG interpretation made easy part II
  4. Learn about the 4-5-6, 7-8-9 rule
  5. Oxyhemoglobin Dissociation Curve
  6. How to know if your patient is a CO2 retainer
  7. Cord Blood Gases made easy
  8. The argument against ABGs
  9. What is an ABG
  10. Respriatory Therapy Formulas
  11. A history of the hypoxic drive hoax
This post updated 12/24/13 by Rick Frea. It has also been read and approved by many physicians, nurses and respiratory therapists. This page is also referred to by various physicians and RT Schools on the web.
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30 comments:

Trauma Junkie said...

This is VERY useful information! Thanks for sharing. We cover ABG's next semester so I bookmarked this and went ahead and Dugg it.

RT Student In Chicago said...

Very fun! We just learned these in my first semester. But I think there are a couple typos:

- the first #4 should be uncompensated metabolic alkalosis; we actually call it partly compensated, because the CO2 is acidic but pH still out of range

- The second #4 should be uncompensated respiratory alkalosis

I've never posted here, but yours is one of my favorite blogs!

Freadom said...

Your observations have been heeded. Yep, I did make a typo. Fixed. Thanks.

RN in the making said...

I was reading the comments and the last one said the errors were fixed, just wanted to double check before I completely memorized this. Thanks a million!

Anonymous said...
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Anonymous said...

Thank you for the practice questions, very helpful! :)

Anonymous said...

and if the ph is within normal range, while both co2 and hco3 are outside normal range?

Wingkay said...

Hi, thanks for this informative blog. :) However, I would just like to clarify the step D. number 1 that:
" Uncompensated: if the pH is anywhere outside the normal ranges ( greater than 7.35 or less than 7.45 ) "

Is it rather be less than 7.35 and greater than 7.45?

Thanks once again. :)

Rick Frea said...

Thanks Wingkay. It was a typo and has been corrected.

Leah-SRT said...

Thank you so much for this.....Great info and right when I need it...

Anonymous said...

you said it is ph value of 7.35-7.45, if is less 7.35 it's acidosis,if above 7.45 is alkalosis. How come you use in one of your example the 7.39 acidosis as baseline, and in alkalosis it's 7.41?

Rick Frea said...

Good question. In my original post I had anything greater than 7.4 as alkalotoc and anything less than 7.4 as acidodic. Yet due to popular demand I changed my range from 7.35-7.45 to keep my ranges within the same ranges taught in most RT Schools. Then I never changed the examples. Although the examples are still valid and correct, and now updated. Thanks.

Anonymous said...

How can you tell by looking at pH if is partial or complete compensated?

Rick Frea said...

If the pH is normal it's fully compensated. If the pH is improving, you have partial compensation. If the pH is way out of whack, then you have no compensation.

Marianne X. said...

What if the pH is alkalotic, the PaCO2 is acid and all other values are normal except for a hyperoxygenated PaO2 reading? I'm thinking that it's a mistake in the question... Any thoughts would be appreciated.

Anonymous said...

Thank you so much for all the information It is very clear & hepful.

Walter said...

One more typo...a low ph with a low pco2 is a metabolic acidosis. Typically a diabetic in DKA will present that result

Walter said...

Also...MarianneX...normal PO2 is 80 to 100 (on room air). A PO2 > 100 has no effect on the acid base determination. No to confuse matters, for there to be a complete respiratory issue, there is a 10 : 0.1 ratio. If the PCO@ goes up 10, the PH will drop 0.1. The kidneys will then compensate by retaining HCO3...so you will have a compensated respiratory acidosis. What gets confusing however is that some patients have a PCO2 of 60 or 70. As long as their PH is 7.35 to 7.4, they will be okay...however, if their PH starts dropping below 7.2, they are in respiratory failure.

Ayesha Redston said...

Hello, how about SaO2? how to read it? what are the indication for it to be mild, moderate and severe? thanks lot ^^

Rick Frea said...

Hey, Ayesha, I think I answer your question in ABG interpretation part II. You can find the link above under further reading. If you continue to have questions please let me know.

Anonymous said...

Thank you so very much!! I've been struggling with this a full semester ,!! Thanks to you I've finally got it

Anonymous said...

Hi Rick Im a physio, preparing for my license exam. came across ur blog while I was begging God to help me in understanding how to read an ABG. You were the answer to my prayers:-) thank you
T

Rick Frea said...

You are most welcome. And just for the record, I added the print icon for those who are interested in such an option. I just make every thing so easy.

Anonymous said...

Very helpful, easy to understand, thanks so much! Irene

kiwiphys said...

Hi, I'm a new grad physio in NZ- this is the best thing I have found to help me with this, thankyou SO SO SO SO much :)

Anonymous said...

This was extremely helpful! I wish I had this info before, but it will help me in the future. I walked around saying ABG's are not my thing for the last several months because I just was not getting it. Thank you I feel confident that I will not have a problem in the future.

Elizabeth said...

Future RN

I'm a nursing student and totally understand Abg's now!!!!
Thank you so much

john bottrell said...

The RT Cave humbly appreciates the kind words.

Anonymous said...

excellent very useful information with simple examples thank you

Anonymous said...

This was the most helpful page I found with ABGs! Thank you!