BACKGROUND: and study objectives: Patients with end-stage cystic fibrosis (CF) develop respiratory failure and hypercapnia. In contrast to COPD patients, altered electrolyte transport and malnutrition in CF patients may predispose them to metabolic alkalosis and, therefore, may contribute to hypercapnia. The aim of this study was to determine the prevalence of metabolic alkalosis in adults with hypercapnic respiratory failure in the setting of acute exacerbations of CF compared with COPD. DESIGN: Levels of arterial blood gases, plasma electrolytes, and serum albumin from 14 consecutive hypercapnic CF patients who had been admitted to the hospital with a respiratory exacerbation were compared with 49 consecutive hypercapnic patients with exacerbations of COPD. Hypercapnia was defined as a PaCO(2) of > or = 45 mm Hg. RESULTS: Despite similar PaCO(2) values, patients in the CF group were significantly more alkalotic than were those in the COPD group (mean [+/- SD] pH, 7.43 +/- 0.03 vs 7.37 +/- 0.05, respectively; p < 0.01). A mixed respiratory acidosis and metabolic alkalosis was evident in 71% of CF patients and 22% of COPD patients (p < 0.01). The mean concentrations of plasma chloride (95.1 +/- 4.9 vs 99.8 +/- 5.2 mmol/L, respectively; p < 0.01) and sodium (136.5 +/- 2.8 vs 140.4 +/- 4.5 mmol/L, respectively; p < 0.01) were significantly lower in the CF group, and the levels of serum albumin were significantly reduced (27.4 +/- 5.8 vs 33.7 +/- 4.8 mmol/L, respectively; p < 0.01). CONCLUSION: Metabolic alkalosis contributes to hypercapnic respiratory failure in adults with acute exacerbations of CF. This acid-base disturbance occurs in conjunction with reduced total body salt levels and hypoalbuminemia.