We examined the role of respiratory control during O2-induced hypercarbia in patients with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), by comparing the observed change in ventilation (delta VEobs) with the delta VE predicted (delta VEpred) from the patients' ventilatory drive and the O2-induced delta PaCO2 and delta SaO2. Eleven stable hypoxemic COPD patients (mean +/- SD: FEV1 = 1.00 +/- 0.25 L, FVC = 2.33 +/- 0.38 L; room air PaCO2 = 52.7 +/- 7.9 mm Hg, SaO2 87.7 +/- 5.1%) were studied. Using standard rebreathing methods, we measured the ventilatory responses to hypercapnia (delta VE/PCO2 = 0.76 +/- 0.55 L/min/mm Hg) and to hypoxia (delta VE/delta SaO2 = -0.74 +/- 0.31 L/min/%). After breathing 100% O2 for 15 min, the mean delta VEobs was -0.08 +/- 0.62 (SEM) L/min (p = NS), the delta SaO2 was 7.6 +/- 3.6% (p < 0.001), and the delta PaCO2 was 6.6 +/- 3.3 mm Hg (p < 0.001). The delta VEpred was expressed as the sum of a decrease in ventilation due to suppression of hypoxic drive [calculated as the product (delta VE/SaO2) x delta SaO2] and an increase in ventilation due to the O2-induced hypercarbia [calculated as the production (delta VE/delta PCO2) x delta PaCO2]. The mean delta VEpred [-0.96 +/- 0.68 (SEM)] did not differ significantly from mean delta VEobs. We conclude that the O2-induced delta VEobs is equal to that expected from the ventilatory drives and the changes in PaCO2 and SaO2; and that O2-induced hypercarbia does not indicate a failure of respiratory control mechanisms in the maintenance of PaCO2 homeostasis.