What is respiratory failure?
Respiratory failure is a condition in which your blood doesn't have enough oxygen or has too much carbon dioxide. Sometimes you can have both problems.
When you breathe, your lungs take in oxygen. The oxygen passes into your blood, which carries it to your organs. Your organs, such as your heart and brain, need this oxygen-rich blood to work well.
Another part of breathing is removing the carbon dioxide from the blood and breathing it out. Having too much carbon dioxide in your blood can harm your organs.
What causes respiratory failure?
Conditions that affect your breathing can cause respiratory failure. These conditions may affect the muscles, nerves, bones, or tissues that support breathing. Or they may affect the lungs directly. These conditions include:
- Diseases that affect the lungs, such as COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease), cystic fibrosis, pneumonia, pulmonary embolism, and COVID-19
- Conditions that affect the nerves and muscles that control breathing, such as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), muscular dystrophy, spinal cord injuries, and stroke
- Problems with the spine, such as scoliosis (a curve in the spine). They can affect the bones and muscles used for breathing.
- Damage to the tissues and ribs around the lungs. An injury to the chest can cause this damage.
- Drug or alcohol overdose
- Inhalation injuries, such as from inhaling smoke (from fires) or harmful fumes
What are the symptoms of respiratory failure?
The symptoms of respiratory failure depend on the cause and the levels of oxygen and carbon dioxide in your blood.
A low oxygen level in the blood can cause shortness of breath and air hunger (the feeling that you can't breathe in enough air). Your skin, lips, and fingernails may also have a bluish color. A high carbon dioxide level can cause rapid breathing and confusion.
Some people who have respiratory failure may become very sleepy or lose consciousness. They also may have arrhythmia (irregular heartbeat). You may have these symptoms if your brain and heart are not getting enough oxygen.
How is respiratory failure diagnosed?
Your health care provider will diagnose respiratory failure based on:
- Your medical history
- A physical exam, which often includes
- Listening to your lungs to check for abnormal sounds
- Listening to your heart to check for arrhythmia
- Looking for a bluish color on your skin, lips, and fingernails
- Diagnostic tests, such as
- Pulse oximetry, a small sensor that uses a light to measure how much oxygen is in your blood. The sensor goes on the end of your finger or on your ear.
- Arterial blood gas test, a test that measures the oxygen and carbon dioxide levels in your blood. The blood sample is taken from an artery, usually in your wrist.
Once you are diagnosed with respiratory failure, your provider will look for what is causing it. Tests for this often include a chest x-ray. If your provider thinks you may have arrhythmia because of the respiratory failure, you may have an EKG (electrocardiogram). This is simple, painless test that detects and records your heart's electrical activity.
What are the treatments for respiratory failure?
Treatment for respiratory failure depends on:
- Whether it is acute (short-term) or chronic (ongoing)
- How severe it is
- What is causing it
Acute respiratory failure can be a medical emergency. You may need treatment in intensive care unit at a hospital. Chronic respiratory failure can often be treated at home. But if your chronic respiratory failure is severe, you might need treatment in a long-term care center.
One of the main goals of treatment is to get oxygen to your lungs and other organs and remove carbon dioxide from your body. Another goal is to treat the cause of the condition. Treatments may include:
- Oxygen therapy, through a nasal cannula (two small plastic tubes that go in your nostrils) or through a mask that fits over your nose and mouth
- Tracheostomy, a surgically-made hole that goes through the front of your neck and into your windpipe. A breathing tube, also called a tracheostomy, or trach tube, is placed in the hole to help you breathe.
- Ventilator, a breathing machine that blows air into your lungs. It also carries carbon dioxide out of your lungs.
- Other breathing treatments, such as noninvasive positive pressure ventilation (NPPV), which uses mild air pressure to keep your airways open while you sleep. Another treatment is a special bed that rocks back and forth, to help you breathe in and out.
- Fluids, often through an intravenous (IV), to improve blood flow throughout your body. They also provide nutrition.
- Medicines for discomfort
- Treatments for the cause of the respiratory failure. These treatments may include medicines and procedures.
If you have respiratory failure, see your health care provider for ongoing medical care. Your provider may suggest pulmonary rehabilitation.
If your respiratory failure is chronic, make sure that you know when and where to get help for your symptoms. You need emergency care if you have severe symptoms, such as trouble catching your breath or talking. You should call your provider if you notice that your symptoms are worsening or if you have new signs and symptoms.
NIH: National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute
- Pulmonary Rehabilitation: MedlinePlus Health Topic (National Library of Medicine) Also in Spanish
- Acute Respiratory Distress Syndrome (ARDS) (American Lung Association)
- What Is Acute Respiratory Distress Syndrome (ARDS)? (National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute)
- What Is Acute Respiratory Distress Syndrome? (American Thoracic Society) - PDF Also in Spanish
- Hereditary myopathy with early respiratory failure: MedlinePlus Genetics (National Library of Medicine)
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