What's respiratory failure?
Respiratory failure is when your breathing isn't good enough.
You breathe in (inhale) to get oxygen from the air into your blood
You breathe out (exhale) to get rid of carbon dioxide from your blood
Any problem that slows or blocks your breathing can cause respiratory failure
Your blood may have too little oxygen, too much carbon dioxide, or both
Doctors treat the cause of respiratory failure
You often need extra oxygen and sometimes a ventilator Ventilators Ventilation is the same thing as breathing. It's the movement of air into and out of your lungs. Sometimes your breathing needs to be assisted by a ventilator. A ventilator is a machine that... read more (breathing machine)
What causes respiratory failure?
Different types of problems can cause respiratory failure:
Blocked airflow: Asthma Asthma Asthma is a condition in which the breathing passages (airways) in your lungs get narrow. When the airways are narrow, it's hard to breathe. Breathing often makes a squeaky musical sound called... read more , COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease) Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) COPD is a disease in your lungs that makes it hard to breathe. It's hard to push air out of your lungs. Difficulty pushing air out is called chronic airflow obstruction. Smoking cigarettes is... read more , sleep apnea Sleep Apnea Apnea is a medical word for "not breathing." Sleep apnea is when your breathing slows or stops for a short time while you're sleeping and then restarts. This happens over and over each time... read more
Weak breathing: Drug overdose Overdose Toxicity Overdose toxicity refers to serious, often harmful, and sometimes fatal toxic reactions to an accidental overdose of a drug (because of an error on the part of the doctor, pharmacist, or person... read more , stroke Stroke A stroke is a sudden brain problem that happens when a blood vessel in your brain either gets blocked or breaks open and bleeds. Part of your brain stops getting blood. Brain tissue that doesn't... read more , myasthenia gravis Myasthenia Gravis Myasthenia gravis is a disease that causes periods of muscle weakness. Myasthenia is an autoimmune disease that keeps your nerves from passing signals to your muscles Myasthenia gravis happens... read more
Clogged lungs: Heart failure Heart Failure Your heart pumps blood to carry oxygen and nutrients to the rest of your body. Heart failure is when your heart doesn’t pump blood as well as it should. It doesn’t mean your heart has stopped... read more , pneumonia Pneumonia Pneumonia is an infection deep in your lungs. The infection involves the small air sacs in your lungs (alveoli). Pneumonia is different from infection of the air passages (bronchi) in your lungs... read more , ARDS (acute respiratory distress syndrome) Acute Respiratory Distress Syndrome (ARDS) Acute respiratory distress syndrome is when you have sudden difficulty with your breathing. ARDS is a certain kind of severe breathing problem when your lungs fill up with fluid ARDS causes... read more
What are the symptoms of respiratory failure?
At first you may:
Feel short of breath
Have a blue color to your lips and sometimes to your skin
Later on you:
Become sleepy and confused
Without treatment, you may go into a coma and die.
How do doctors know I have respiratory failure?
Doctors usually know based on your symptoms. They also:
Put a sensor on your finger to measure the oxygen level in your blood
Do a blood test to measure the level of oxygen and carbon dioxide
They also do a chest x-ray and various other tests to look for the cause of your respiratory failure.
How do doctors treat respiratory failure?
You'll need to be in an intensive care unit (ICU). An ICU is an area in the hospital for people who are seriously ill. Doctors will treat the problem that caused respiratory failure and may: