An oxygen-rich blood is essential for your heart and brain to function properly. When enough oxygen does not pass from your lungs into your blood, respiratory failure occurs. It can also occur if carbon dioxide is not removed properly from your blood by the lungs.
If the cause of respiratory failure is a low level of oxygen in the blood, it is known as hypoxemic respiratory failure. Whereas, if high amounts of carbon dioxide gas is the reason behind the respiratory failure, it is called hypercapnic respiratory failure.
To understand respiratory failure, it helps to understand how the lungs work. When you breathe, air passes through your nose and mouth into your windpipe. The air then travels to your lungs' air sacs. These sacs are called alveoli.
Small blood vessels called capillaries run through the walls of the air sacs. When air reaches the air sacs, the oxygen in the air passes through the air sac walls into the blood in the capillaries. At the same time, carbon dioxide moves from the capillaries into the air sacs. This process is called gas exchange.
In respiratory failure, gas exchange is impaired.
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.
Signs and symptoms of respiratory failure may include shortness of breath, rapid breathing, and air hunger (feeling like you can't breathe in enough air). In severe cases, signs and symptoms may include a bluish color on your skin, lips, and fingernails; confusion; and sleepiness.
One of the main goals of treating respiratory failure is to get oxygen to your lungs and other organs and remove carbon dioxide from your body. Another goal is to treat the underlying cause of the condition.
Acute respiratory failure usually is treated in an intensive care unit. Chronic respiratory failure can be treated at home or at a long-term care center.
The prognosis of respiratory failure depends on how severe your underlying cause is and how quickly you receive treatment. Oxygen therapy is provided to people with severe lung diseases. They may also be kept on a ventilator- a machine that supports breathing.
A doctor may refer a patient with respiratory failure to a pulmonary rehabilitation which can involve exercise training, education, and counseling.
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