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:
Hypoxemic respiratory failure–low levels of oxygen in the blood
Hypercapnic respiratory failure–high levels of carbon dioxide in the blood
Combination of low oxygen levels and high carbon dioxide levels
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:
Problems moving air with each breath. It may be caused by:
Lung disease or conditions
Blockage of airway
Injuries to the chest or ribs
Muscles or nerves that are not working well
Problems of the spine that make it hard to fully open the chest, such as scoliosis
Problem moving gas across lung tissue to blood vessels. Can be caused by:
Lung disease or conditions
Trauma or illness
Air sacs that are blocked by fluids, harmful fumes or smoke
Brain damage, stroke, or drug or alcohol overdose that slows signals to breathe
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:
Oxygen therapy—oxygen is passed through tubes into the nose or mouth. It will increase oxygen in the lungs. This will increase the amount of oxygen that can reach the body.
Mechanical ventilation—machine that helps your breathe. It will move air into the lungs until you can breathe well on your own again.
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:
Home oxygen therapy. A machine or tank can provide oxygen at home. Smaller units can be taken outside the home. Oxygen may only be needed during activity or 24 hours per day.
Sleep support. A machine can help to keep the airway open during sleep. A mask gently pushes air into the airways. It helps keep the airways open and increases the amount of air in the lungs. Certain sleep positions or special beds may also ease breathing.
Mechanical ventilation may be needed if breathing is too weak.