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Respiratory Failure

by Brian K. Gehlbach, MD, Jesse B. Hall, MD

Respiratory failure (lung failure) is a condition in which the level of oxygen in the blood becomes dangerously low or the level of carbon dioxide becomes dangerously high.

  • Conditions that block the airways, damage lung tissue, weaken the muscles that control breathing, or decrease the drive to breathe may cause lung failure.

  • People may be very short of breath, have a bluish coloration to the skin, and be confused or sleepy.

  • Doctors use blood tests to detect low levels of oxygen or high levels of carbon dioxide in the blood.

  • Oxygen is given.

  • Sometimes people need the help of a machine to breathe until the underlying problem can be treated.

Respiratory failure is a medical emergency that can result from long-standing, progressively worsening lung disease or from severe lung disease that develops suddenly, such as the acute respiratory distress syndrome (see Acute Respiratory Distress Syndrome (ARDS)), in otherwise healthy people.

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