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The reader understands the basic concepts of the regulation of the acid-base status of the body.

  • Defines acids, bases, and buffers.

  • Lists the buffer systems available in the human body.

  • Describes the interrelationships of the pH, the PCO2 of the blood, and the plasma bicarbonate concentration, and states the Henderson-Hasselbalch equation.

  • States the normal ranges of arterial pH, PCO2, and bicarbonate concentration, and defines acidemia and alkalemia, and acidosis and alkalosis.

  • Lists the potential causes of respiratory acidosis and alkalosis and metabolic acidosis and alkalosis.

  • Discusses the respiratory and renal mechanisms that help compensate for acidosis and alkalosis.

  • Evaluates blood gas data to determine a subject’s acid-base status.

  • Classifies and explains the causes of tissue hypoxia.

The maintenance of a relatively constant internal environment is one of the major physiologic functions of the organ systems of the body. Body temperature, fluid volume and osmolarity, and electrolytes—including acids and bases—are normally carefully regulated. A thorough knowledge of the mechanisms that control these variables is essential to clinical practice.

The respiratory system is intimately involved in the maintenance of the balance of acids and bases in the body. This chapter will introduce the major concepts of acid-base balance, particularly with respect to the respiratory system; a more detailed study of this important subject is strongly encouraged.


Although there are several ways to define acids and bases, the most useful physiologically is to define an acid as a substance that can donate a hydrogen ion (a proton) to another substance and a base as a substance that can accept a hydrogen ion from another substance. A strong acid is a substance that is completely or almost completely dissociated into a hydrogen ion and its corresponding or conjugate base in dilute aqueous solution; a weak acid is only slightly ionized in aqueous solution. In general, a strong acid has a weak conjugate base and a weak acid has a strong conjugate base. The strength of an acid or a base should not be confused with its concentration.

A buffer is a mixture of substances in aqueous solution (usually a combination of a weak acid and its conjugate base) that can resist changes in hydrogen ion concentration when strong acids or bases are added. That is, the changes in hydrogen ion concentration that occur when a strong acid or base is added to a buffer system are much smaller than those that would occur if the same amount of acid or base were added to pure water or another nonbuffer solution.

The Quantification of Acidity

The acidity of a solution is determined by the activity of the hydrogen ions in the solution. The hydrogen ion activity, which is denoted by the symbol αH+, is closely ...

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