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Quick Facts

Respiratory Failure

(Lung Failure)


The Manual's Editorial Staff

Last full review/revision Sep 2020| Content last modified Sep 2020
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What's respiratory failure?

Respiration means breathing. So respiratory failure is when your breathing isn't adequate.

  • 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 (breathing machine)

What causes respiratory failure?

Different types of problems can cause respiratory failure:

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 detect 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:

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