(Acute Respiratory Failure; Chronic Respiratory Failure)
by Pamela Jones, MA
Respiratory failure is a problem getting gases in and out of the blood. Oxygen is needed for the body to work well. Low levels can affect active organs like the heart and brain. 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:
Acute respiratory failure starts fast. It often happens after an injury or illness. It may pass once the cause has cleared.
Chronic respiratory failure happens slowly over time. It is often the result of a lung illness. This type of failure often needs lifelong support.
Normal breathing pulls oxygen in and pushes carbon dioxide out. A second gas exchange happens inside the lungs. Gas passes through lung tissue into or out of small blood vessels of the lungs. Respiratory failure happens with:
The risk of chronic failure is higher in people with certain chronic conditions or diseases such as:
Acute failure is often caused by trauma to lungs, chest, or brain which may occur with:
Low oxygen levels can cause:
A buildup of carbon dioxide in the blood can cause:
You will be asked about your symptoms and past health. A physical exam will be done. Symptoms and sounds of the lungs will suggest a lung problem.
Oxygen and carbon dioxide levels in the blood can be measured by:
Images of the chest and lungs may also be taken. It will show signs of possible causes or injuries.
The goal of treatment is to improve oxygen levels inthe body. Exact steps will depend on the severity of the failure and overall health.
Acute failure is often treated in a hospital. Intensive care is often needed. Steps may include:
Other supportive care may be given. It may ease discomfort or treat some causes. This type of failure often goes away once the injury or illness has healed.
Chronic Respiratory Failure
Chronic failure will need long term care. Oxygen therapy and breathing support will help. Steps that may be needed include:
There are no steps to prevent respiratory failure due to an accident.
Careful management of lung illness can prevent or delay respiratory failure. Steps that may help include:
American Lung Association
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
Explore respiratory failure. National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute website. Available at:
...(Click grey area to select URL)
Accessed February 12, 2019.
Overview of respiratory failure. The Merck Manual Professional Edition. Available at:
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Updated November 2013. Accessed February 12, 2019.
Last reviewed March 2019 by EBSCO Medical Review Board Daniel A. Ostrovsky, MD
Last Updated: 2/12/2019
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