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Gas Exchange in Disease: Asthma, Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease, Cystic Fibrosis, and Interstitial Lung Disease

  1. Iven H. Young,
  2. Peter T.P. Bye

Published Online: 1 APR 2011

DOI: 10.1002/cphy.c090012

Comprehensive Physiology

Comprehensive Physiology

How to Cite

Young, I. H. and Bye, P. T. 2011. Gas Exchange in Disease: Asthma, Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease, Cystic Fibrosis, and Interstitial Lung Disease. Comprehensive Physiology. 1:663–697.

Author Information

  1. Department of Respiratory and Sleep Medicine, Royal Prince Alfred Hospital, and The University of Sydney, Australia

Publication History

  1. Published Online: 1 APR 2011


Ventilation-perfusion (inline imagea/inline image) inequality is the underlying abnormality determining hypoxemia and hypercapnia in lung diseases. Hypoxemia in asthma is characterized by the presence of low inline imagea/inline image units, which persist despite improvement in airway function after an attack. This hypoxemia is generally attenuated by compensatory redistribution of blood flow mediated by hypoxic vasoconstriction and changes in cardiac output, however, mediator release and bronchodilator therapy may cause deterioration. Patients with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease have more complex patterns of inline imagea/inline image inequality, which appear more fixed, and changes in blood flow and ventilation have less benefit in improving gas exchange efficiency. The inability of ventilation to match increasing cardiac output limits exercise capacity as the disease progresses. Deteriorating hypoxemia during exacerbations reflects the falling mixed venous oxygen tension from increased respiratory muscle activity, which is not compensated by any redistribution of inline imagea/inline image ratios. Shunt is not a feature of any of these diseases. Patients with cystic fibrosis (CF) have no substantial shunt when managed according to modern treatment regimens. Interstitial lung diseases demonstrate impaired oxygen diffusion across the alveolar-capillary barrier, particularly during exercise, although inline imagea/inline image inequality still accounts for most of the gas exchange abnormality. Hypoxemia may limit exercise capacity in these diseases and in CF. Persistent hypercapnic respiratory failure is a feature of advancing chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and CF, closely associated with sleep disordered breathing, which is not a prominent feature of the other diseases. Better understanding of the mechanisms of hypercapnic respiratory failure, and of the detailed mechanisms controlling the distribution of ventilation and blood flow in the lung, are high priorities for future research. © 2011 American Physiological Society. Compr Physiol 1:663-697, 2011.