Respiratory failure is a condition in which not enough oxygen passes from your lungs into your blood. Your body's organs, such as your heart and brain, need oxygen-rich blood to work well.
Respiratory failure also can occur if your lungs can't properly remove carbon dioxide (a waste gas) from your blood. Too much carbon dioxide in your blood can harm your body's organs.
Both of these problems—a low oxygen level and a high carbon dioxide level in the blood—can occur at the same time.
Respiratory failure can be acute (short term) or chronic (ongoing). Acute respiratory failure can develop quickly and may require emergency treatment. Chronic respiratory failure develops more slowly and lasts longer.
Certain diseases and conditions that impair breathing can cause respiratory failure. These diseases and conditions may affect the muscles, nerves, bones, or tissues that support breathing, or they may affect the lungs directly.
Some diseases and conditions that can cause respiratory failure include COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease), spinal cord injuries, pneumonia, and drug overdose.
The signs and symptoms of respiratory failure depend on its underlying cause and the levels of oxygen and carbon dioxide in the blood. Signs and symptoms may include shortness of breath; air hunger (feeling like you can't breathe in enough air); a bluish color to the skin, lips, and fingernails; rapid breathing; and confusion.
Some people who have respiratory failure may become very sleepy or lose consciousness. They also may develop arrhythmias (irregular heartbeats). These symptoms can occur if not enough oxygen is reaching the brain and heart.
Your doctor will diagnose respiratory failure based on your medical history, a physical exam, and the results from tests. Once respiratory failure is diagnosed, your doctor will look for its underlying cause.
Treatment for respiratory failure depends on whether the condition is acute or chronic and its severity. Treatment also depends on the underlying cause of the respiratory failure.
Acute respiratory failure can be a medical emergency. It often is treated in an intensive care unit at a hospital. Chronic respiratory failure often can be treated at home. If chronic respiratory failure is severe, your doctor may recommend treatment in a long-term care center.
If you have respiratory failure, it's important to get ongoing medical care. Your doctor may refer you to pulmonary rehabilitation (rehab). Don't smoke, and avoid secondhand smoke.
Living with respiratory failure may cause fear, anxiety, depression, and stress. It's important to talk about how you feel with your health care team. Talking to a professional counselor also can help.
If you have chronic respiratory failure, knowing when and where to seek help for your symptoms is important. You should seek emergency care if you have severe symptoms, such as trouble catching your breath or talking.
Keep phone numbers handy for your doctor, hospital, and someone who can take you for medical care. You also should have on hand directions to the doctor's office and hospital and a list of all the medicines you're taking.
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