End-Tidal Capnography

Updated: Apr 09, 2018
  • Author: Robert Thomas Arrigo, MD, MS; Chief Editor: Zab Mosenifar, MD, FACP, FCCP  more...
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End-tidal capnography refers to the graphical measurement of the partial pressure of carbon dioxide (in mm Hg) during expiration (ie, end-tidal carbon dioxide [EtCO2, PetCO2]). First established in the 1930s, clinical use of EtCO2 measurement became accessible in the 1950s with the production and distribution of capnograph monitors. [1, 2]

With continuous technologic advancements, EtCO2 monitoring has become a key component in the advancement of patient safety within anesthesiology, and the American Society of Anesthesiologists (ASA) has endorsed end-tidal capnography as a standard of care for general anesthesia and moderate or deep procedural sedation. [3, 4]  

Studies have shown that during cardiac arrest, EtCOvalues of greater than 10 to 20 mm Hg are associated with return of spontaneous circulation (ROSC). [5, 6]  Accordingly, other specialties, including critical care and emergency medicine, [7] are more frequently implementing end-tidal capnography monitoring, though uptake of this life-saving technology outside of the operating room remains inadequate. [8, 9]



Continuous waveform capnography, combined with clinical assessment, is "the most reliable method of confirming and monitoring correct placement of an [endotracheal tube]," according to the American Heart Association (AHA). [10]  Capnography can also be used to ensure ventilation with supraglottic devices, as well as to confirm a spontaneously ventilating patient is in fact breathing (eg, via face mask or nasal cannula sampling).

More generally, end-tidal capnography is used in the following settings:

  • General anesthesia
  • Procedural sedation, including sedation with monitored anesthesia care
  • Analysis of ventilation (eg, in the intensive care unit [ICU])
  • Cardiac arrest, to confirm tracheal intubation and adequacy of chest compressions [6, 10]

Cardiopulmonary resuscitation

The balance between production, delivery, and elimination of CO2 can be monitored by means of end-tidal capnography. In the event of cardiopulmonary arrest, cardiac output drops to zero, and thus, no transport of CO2 from the tissues to the lungs can occur. End-tidal capnometry of an artificially ventilated patient would, after several washout breaths, show a flat EtCO2 capnogram with EtCO2 equaling zero during the arrest. Once chest compressions are initiated, circulation of blood will again deliver CO2 to the lungs, and the EtCO2 capnogram will rise and fall with each breath as CO2 is ventilated.

EtCO2 levels of 20 mm Hg or greater indicate adequate chest compressions during cardiopulmonary resuscitation, and failure to achieve a level of at least 10 mm Hg after 20 minutes of cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) may help in making the decision to terminate resuscitative efforts. [6, 11, 10]

Complication prevention

Continuous EtCO2 monitoring can provide an early warning of impending hypoxemia. Several studies have demonstrated that respiratory depression is detected via end-tidal capnography 30-60 seconds before it is detected via oxygen saturation. [12]


Technical Considerations

Best practices

In anesthesia and procedural sedation, end-tidal capnography has become the standard of care. Class IA evidence has established the indications for use, with several randomized trials demonstrating reductions in episodic hypoxia during procedural sedation.

Reading the capnogram

Cellular metabolism produces carbon dioxide, while the lungs work to eliminate it from the body. The balance between production and elimination can be followed in the rise and fall of EtCO2 as displayed by the capnogram. More specifically, EtCO2 waveforms provide clinicians with a tool for quick and reliable diagnoses of common pulmonary pathophysiology.

Generally, EtCO2 is displayed as a waveform with partial pressure of CO2 on the y-axis and time on the x-axis (see the images below).

Normal breathing. Normal breathing.

The capnogram has four phases, as follows:

  • Phase I represents the end of inspiration, and early expiration of gas from dead space (circuit tubing, anatomic)
  • Phase II represents gas from late anatomic and alveolar dead space, upsloping as alveolar gas mixes in and raises the CO 2
  • Phase III (plateau) represents the partial pressure of carbon dioxide exchanged at the alveoli; the amplitude of the plateau is referred to as EtCO 2; phase III normally has a very slight upslope due to physiologic V/Q mismatch
  • Phase IV signifies the start of inspiration, and the capnogram reflects the transition at the sampler from alveolar air flow to fresh air flow, or “scrubbed” air, in a closed circuit [13]

Of note, the information captured by end-tidal capnography (partial pressure of CO2) is devoid of volumetric information. Therefore, capnography should be used with end-tidal volume measurements to fully assess ventilation parameters. (See the video below.)

Normal mechanical ventilation.

Pathology and the capnogram

Causes of high EtCO2 include the following:


Causes of low EtCO2 include the following:


Other waveform findings include the following:

  • Curare clefts (see the image below) typically occur when a mechanically ventilated patient attempts to inspire (eg, when analgesia is inadequate); they may also represent surgeon manipulation of the chest or adbomen
  • A long, steeply upsloping phase III "plateau" is indicative of obstructive airway disease (eg, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease [COPD] or bronchospasm)
  • An elevated baseline during phases IV or I may indicate a failing CO 2 absorber
  • A less acute phase IV slope suggests a failing expiratory valve
  • Cardiogenic oscillations are seen with prolonged expiratory time
Curare cleft. Curare cleft.