(Acute Respiratory Failure; Chronic Respiratory Failure)
by Amy Scholten, MPH
Respiratory failure is a problem getting gases in and out of the blood. Oxygen helps the body work well. Carbon dioxide is a waste product made in the body. It needs to pass out of the body through the lungs. Respiratory failure may be:
This condition can be life-threatening.
There are two types of respiratory failure:
Respiratory failure is caused by conditions or injuries that affect breathing. It may be due to:
Breathing problems make it hard for lungs to move oxygen to blood or remove carbon dioxide.
Things that raise the risk of acute respiratory failure are:
Things that raise the risk of chronic respiratory failure are:
Symptoms depend on the cause. They also depend on levels of oxygen and carbon dioxide in the blood.
Low oxygen levels can cause:
A buildup of carbon dioxide can cause:
The doctor will ask about symptoms and past health. A physical exam will be done. The doctor will listen for lung sounds.
Tests will check oxygen and carbon dioxide levels in the blood. They include:
Images of the chest and lungs may be done—to look for causes or injuries.
The goal is to improve oxygen or carbon dioxide levels in the body. Treatment depends on how severe the condition is.
Acute Respiratory Failure
The acute type is often treated in a hospital. Steps may include:
Other care may be given. It may ease discomfort or treat some causes. The acute type often goes away once the injury or illness has healed.
Chronic Respiratory Failure
The chronic type needs long term care. Oxygen therapy and breathing support will help. Other options may be:
There are no steps to prevent respiratory failure due to an accident.
Management of lung illness can prevent or slow respiratory failure. Helpful steps are:
American Lung Association
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
The Lung Association
Acute respiratory failure—approach to the patient. EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at: https://www.dynamed.com/approach-to/acute-respiratory-failure-approach-to-the-patient. Accessed August 10, 2021.
Lamba TS, Sharara RS, et al. Pathophysiology and classification of respiratory failure. Crit Care Nurs Q. 2016;39(2):85-93.
Overview of respiratory failure. The Merck Manual Professional Edition. Available at: https://www.merckmanuals.com/professional/critical-care-medicine/respiratory-failure-and-mechanical-ventilation/overview-of-respiratory-failure . Accessed August 10, 2021.
Respiratory failure. National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute website. Available at: https://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health-topics/respiratory-failure . Accessed August 10, 2021.
Last reviewed July 2021 by EBSCO Medical Review Board Daniel A. Ostrovsky, MD
Last Updated: 8/10/2021
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