VBG vs ABG in Hypercarbia

The blood gas analysis offers important data to guide the treatment and prognostication of critically ill patients. Providers are able to quickly assess acid-base status, tissue perfusion, and respiratory mechanics. Traditionally, providers relied on arterial blood gas (ABG) for these data; however, a relatively new consensus of data supports venous blood gas (VBG) pH, bicarbonate, and lactatmeme3e as surrogates for arterial blood values1,2,3.

In a recent prospective study, Middleton et al  matched 168 arterial and venous blood samples and determined that VBG and ABG could be used interchangeably (95% limits of agreement- This means that the difference did not have meaningful clinical variation) for pH, bicarbonate, base excess, and lactate1. This is good news for patients because arterial punctures are often painful, more difficult to obtain, and have associated complications (although rare) such as nerve injury and digital ischemia. However, we can’t relegate the ABG to the part of the bitter past we’d like to forget (much like I’ve already done to the Cruz-Fiorina campaign and life before the TSA PreCheck option) because there is little consensus on the VBG’s reliability as a surrogate to assess CO2 levels, particularly when the value is moderate to severely elevated.




The Studies

There are 5 recent studies comparing ABG to VBG CO2 inter-reliability that publish their 95% limits of agreement.



Author, year No. Subjects Mean difference (mmHg) 95% limits of agreement (mmHg) Conditions studied Additional Findings
Kelly, 20054 112 6 -14 to 26 COPD ŸPvCO2 > 45 mmHg 100% sensitive for detecting hypercarbia

Ÿ29% reduction in need for ABG sample

McCanny, 20125 84 8.6 -7.8 to 25 COPD ŸPvCO2 > 45 mmHg 100% sensitive for detecting hypercarbia


Toftegaard, 20086 103 4.5 -12.8 to 3.9 various ŸPvCO2 standard deviation outside the acceptable lab performance criteria, central PCO2 was within
Ibrahim, 20087 122 3.3 -17.4 to 23.9 various ŸPvCO2 <30 mmHg 100% sensitive to rule out hypercarbia


Malatesha, 20078 95 8 -7.6 to 6.8 various


In summation, these studies suggest peripheral venous CO(PvCO2) is a useful screening tool. Low levels of PvCO2 (<30 mmHg) may help rule out hypercarbia and high levels (>45 mm Hg) strongly correlate with presence of hypercarbia on the ABG. Determining the presence of hypercarbia based on the VBG may negate the need for ABG evaluation in some instances. However, PvCO2 cannot fully replace arterial peripheral arterial CO2 (PaCO2) because of the wide and unpredictable variation of the credibility interval. Moreover a “correction factor” cannot be used to calculate the PaCO2 from PvCO2 because the actual value may be higher or lower9. The average mean difference in ABG vs VBG CO2 is large enough that it may change patient management, such as the decision to start non-invasive ventilation (NIV) in hypercapneic acute respiratory failure.



High Stakes for COPD patients

COPD patients represent one particular population where a reliable CO2 is critical to your decision-making process. You may be able to rule in or out hypercarbia based on the VBG, but knowing with accuracy that your patient’s CO2 is worsened from baseline may trigger early NIV (however, I would like to emphasize most decisions to begin NIV should be made clinically, even before a VBG is resulted). Early appropriate NIV in patients with arterial pH < 7.35 and hypercapnea has demonstrated lower mortality, reduced rates of intubation, reduction in total number of hospital admission days, and fewer complications such as ventilator-induced lung injury and nosocomial lung infections10,11,12.


Trending PCO2 to Guide Duration of NIV  
Monitoring CO2 during trials of self-ventilation may help clinicians appropriately titrate down NIV use. The 2016 British Thoracic Society guidelines recommend trending transcutaneous, arterial, or capillary pCO2 along with pH. Once these lab values have normalized and the patient is clinically improved, NIV can be discontinued13. While their recommendation does not specifically address venous blood sampling, a low-normal value would effectively rule out hypercarbia.



-Draw the PvCO2 while you are getting your other labs. You may be able to avoid an arterial stick.

PvCO2 > 45 is a useful screening test for the presence of hypercarbia and PvCO2 < 30 is a good “rule out” test.

-PvCO2 does not accurately predict PaCO2, and the true value may be significantly higher or lower.

-You may need to obtain an accurate CO2 (ABG) measurement in some patients because it might change your management. In patients with COPD, early NIV in moderate to severe COPD exacerbations has been shown to reduce morbidity and mortality

-Trending CO2 and pH to normal values can help guide discontinuation of NIV. BEWARE! VBGs  have limited utility in trending COuntil they reach a low-normal level.


Written by Wendy Chan MD

Peer-Review by Eden Kim DO and Raul Hernandez MD

Reviewed/Edited by Ian deSouza MD


Works Cited

1. Middleton P, Kelly AM, Brown J, et al. “Agreement between Arterial and Central Venous Values for PH, Bicarbonate, Base Excess, and Lactate.” Emergency Medicine Journal 23.8 (2006): 622-24.

2. Ma OJ, Rush MD, Godfrey MM, et al. “Arterial Blood Gas Results Rarely Influence Emergency Physician Management of Patients with Suspected Diabetic Ketoacidosis.” Academic Emergency Medicine 10.8 (2003): 836-41.

3. Kelly AM, McAlpine R, Kyle, E. “Agreement between Bicarbonate Measured on Arterial and Venous Blood Gases.” Emerg Med Australas Emergency Medicine Australasia 16.5-6 (2004): 407-09.

4. Kelly A, Kerr D, Middleton, P. “Validation of Venous PCO2 to Screen for Arterial Hypercarbia in Patients with Chronic Obstructive Airways Disease.” The Journal of Emergency Medicine 28.4 (2005): 377-79.

5. McCanny P, Bennett K, Staunton P, et al. “Venous vs Arterial Blood Gases in the Assessment of Patients Presenting with an Exacerbation of Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease.” The American Journal of Emergency Medicine 30.6 (2012): 896-900.

6. Toftegaard M, Rees SE, Andreassen S. “Correlation between Acid–base Parameters Measured in Arterial Blood and Venous Blood Sampled Peripherally, from Vena Cavae Superior, and from the Pulmonary Artery.” European Journal of Emergency Medicine 15.2 (2008): 86-91. 

7. Ibrahim I, Ooi SB, Chan YH, et al. “Point-of-Care Bedside Gas Analyzer: Limited Use of Venous PCO2 in Emergency Patients.” The Journal of Emergency Medicine 41.2 (2011): 117-23.

8. Malatesha G, Singh NK, Bharija A, et al. “Comparison of Arterial and Venous PH, Bicarbonate, PCO2 and PO2 in Initial Emergency Department Assessment.” Emergency Medicine Journal 24.8 (2007): 569-71.

9. Byrne AL, Bennett M, Chatterji R, et al “Peripheral Venous and Arterial Blood Gas Analysis in Adults: Are They Comparable? A Systematic Review and Meta-analysis.” Respirology 19.2 (2014): 168-75.

10. Lightowler, JV. “Non-invasive Positive Pressure Ventilation to Treat Respiratory Failure Resulting from Exacerbations of Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease: Cochrane Systematic Review and Meta-analysis.”BMJ 326.7382 (2003): 185.

11. Keenan, SP. “Which Patients with Acute Exacerbation of Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease Benefit from Noninvasive Positive-Pressure Ventilation?” Annals of Internal Medicine Ann Intern Med,138.11 (2003): 861.

12. Ram FS, Picot J, Lightowler J, et al. “Non-invasive Positive Pressure Ventilation for Treatment of Respiratory Failure Due to Exacerbations of Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease.” Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews Reviews (2004).

13. Davidson A, Banham S, Elliott M, et al. “BTS/ICS Guideline for the Ventilatory Management of Acute Hypercapnic Respiratory Failure in Adults.” Thorax 71. Suppl 2 (2016): Ii1-i35.


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Senior EM Resident at SUNY Downstate / Kings County Hospital, EM/Critical Care Blogger, Medical Student Education Curriculum Co-Chair, has a blackbelt in "keepin' it real"

4 comments for “VBG vs ABG in Hypercarbia

  1. ablumenberg
    September 6, 2016 at 3:03 pm

    Great post Dr. Chan!

  2. Ian deSouza
    September 7, 2016 at 4:27 pm

    In practice and if available and despite no direct, supporting evidence, I’ve used nasal ETCO2 to monitor the response to treatment of patients with type 2 respiratory insufficiency (opioid overdose, COPD). But apparently, there are large differences between ETCO2 and PaCO2 in spontaneously breathing nonintubated patients with acute respiratory failure.

    Lermuzeaux M, et al. Superiority of transcutaneous CO2 over end-tidal CO2 measurement for monitoring respiratory failure in nonintubated patients: A pilot study. J Crit Care. 2016 Feb;31(1):150-6. doi: 10.1016/j.jcrc.2015.09.014. Epub 2015 Sep 25.

  3. Stephen E Rees
    October 7, 2016 at 12:37 pm

    You may want to look at the other papers from our group (Rees SE et al) where we have developed a method for mathematically calculating ABG from venous values. There are about 5 additonal papers from our group which is that of the Toftegaard paper you cite. Just send me a mail if you want the details

  4. Dr Mikey
    November 12, 2017 at 2:09 pm

    Awesome! I love using VBG and avoid ABG outside of obtunded patients as much as possible.

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