Carbon dioxide (CO2) is a gas that's always present in your blood. It is the waste product generated as your body uses up oxygen, and it is expelled from the lungs when you exhale. At normal levels, its presence has no measurable adverse effects on you, but if your breathing is compromised or you are exposed to large amounts of this gas, you can experience a wide range of side effects, some of which include permanent injury and death.
Carbon dioxide is known as an asphyxiant, which is a substance that bonds with your blood in place of oxygen. The website eMedMag.com notes that while most simple asphyxiants do not have any inherent toxicity of their own, cases of CO2 poisoning have been linked to central nervous system damage and permanent deterioration of respiratory functions. Because of these findings, CO2 is considered not just a simple asphyxiant, but a gas with acute systemic effects as well.
If your blood becomes saturated with too much CO2, you develop the condition known as hypercapnia. Increased levels of CO2 also affect the pH level of your blood, turning it more acidic. This condition is called acidemia and, if prolonged, causes acidosis, which is injury to the body's cells by a rise in acidity that leads to faltering functions of the heart. Some possible outcomes of this interference with your heart include low blood pressure and cardiac arrhythmia.
HealthNewsFlash.com details the levels of damage your central nervous system can experience as a result of high acidity. These conditions are the result of temporary or permanent nerve damage brought on by acidemia, and include delirium, hallucinations, seizures, respiratory failure, coma or death.
As an asphyxiant, carbon dioxide displaces breathable oxygen and impairs pulmonary gas exchange. While asphyxiation is commonly associated with choking on a physical object or drowning, you can suffocate on CO2 without any visible abnormality or obstruction of your breathing. If the oxygen content of the air you breathe is insufficient, you slowly suffocate due to selective oxygen depletion until you experience permanent damage or death.