What are the causes of Respiratory Failure?

By  ,  National Institute of Health
Jan 08, 2013

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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.


When breathing is impaired, your lungs can't easily move oxygen into your blood and remove carbon dioxide from your blood (gas exchange). This can cause a low oxygen level or high carbon dioxide level, or both, in your blood.


Respiratory failure can occur as a result of:

  • Conditions that affect the nerves and muscles that control breathing. Examples of these conditions include muscular dystrophy, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), spinal cord injuries, and stroke.
  • Damage to the tissues and ribs around the lungs. This damage can occur from an injury to the chest.
  • Problems with the spine, such as scoliosis (a curve in the spine). This condition can affect the bones and muscles used for breathing.
  • Drug and/or alcohol overdose. An overdose affects the area of the brain that controls breathing. During an overdose, breathing becomes slow and shallow.
  • Lung diseases and conditions, such as COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease), pneumonia, ARDS (acute respiratory distress syndrome), pulmonary embolism, and cystic fibrosis. These diseases and conditions can affect the flow of air and blood into and out of your lungs.
  • Acute lung injuries. For example, inhaling harmful fumes or smoke can injure your lungs.


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