Acute Respiratory Failure

Acute Respiratory Failure

Introduction to acute respiratory failure

The impairment of respiratory functions is caused by some problems in the lungs. In the case of acute respiratory failure, the impairment is due to the building up of fluids in the tiny air sacs situated in the lungs. Capillaries located in this air sac become choked up and they can no longer deliver enough nutrients including oxygen to lung tissues.
Fluids in the lungs mean less or no oxygen will be delivered to the blood. Little or no oxygen in the blood is tantamount to little or no oxygen in body tissues and organs. And carbon dioxide finds it hard to leave your blood because of the fluid.
Oxygen is crucial to all body functions. No or less oxygen in the tissues and the inability to get rid of the oxygen, acute respiratory failure will become evident. All the immediate symptoms experienced are from this oxygen lack in the tissues. Death will occur if the situation is not promptly managed by a doctor.

Types of respiratory failure

There are just two types – acute and chronic. These two types can occur concurrently and cause no small complications. They both make body tissues rich in carbon dioxide and deficient in oxygen. They are respectively referred to as hypoxemia and hypercapnia respiratory failures. In the first one, the failure of the respiration is because there is low oxygen in the body but the carbon dioxide level is retained. And in the second, the failure of the respiration is because there is carbon dioxide in excess concentration while oxygen concentration remains normal.

Symptoms of acute respiratory failure

Oxygen and carbon dioxide levels as well as what is responsible for the cause of the acute respiratory failure determine the symptoms.
If there is very high carbon dioxide content in the blood, confusion and increased breathing will be experienced.
If there is very high oxygen content in the blood, breathing difficulties and typical blue coloration of the lips, skin, and fingertips will be experienced.
More general symptoms associated with low oxygen levels are:

  • inability to stay still in a place for a while
  • anxiousness
  • sleepy eyes
  • fainting
  • quick but short breaths
  • pounding heart
  • arrhythmias
  • heavy body sweats

Causes of acute respiratory failure

Let’s look at some common causes of acute respiratory failure quickly:
Obstruction in the throat can affect oxygen availability in the body tissues because the lungs are blocked from receiving air. Obstruction due to chronic obstructive pulmonary disease or narrowed airways due to asthma attacks can also elicit this condition.
Injuries in the spinal cord or brain can negatively impact oxygen availability in the body. This is because either of them has controlling powers on breathing activities through the connections they share with the respiratory tract. If the brain is damaged, it won’t be able to send information to the lungs to breathe when the brain sees that oxygen is low in the body.
The ribs (chest), when injured, can also reduce respiratory activities and make less oxygen available to the body.

Acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS)

This is marked by a drastic decrease in blood oxygen. Sepsis, pneumonia, trauma, pancreatitis, lung, and brain injuries are some of the common conditions where ARDS finds a place.
It is one syndrome that can occur as you are even undergoing treatment for acute respiratory failure’s underlying condition in the hospital.

Drug and alcohol abuse

Alcoholism and drug abuse can have untold effects on your brain. The extent to which your brain will be impaired is the extent to which you consume these two substances. Whatever can damage your brain can impair your breathing function.

Chemical inhalation

When fumes, chemicals, or smoke is inhaled over a period of time, they can produce damages to lung tissues. Damaged lungs contribute to the development of acute respiratory failure.


Damage to the brain caused by injuries can result in the development of partial paralysis of the body. This is called a stroke. Any part of the brain can be affected. Although stroke occurs suddenly, it usually has a way of announcing its coming. Slurred speech, confusion, irregular breathing are some of the crucial signs that herald the onset of a stroke.


Pneumonia easily predisposes to the development of acute respiratory failure. Pneumonia can damage all the lobes of the lungs. This report was given by Mayo Clinic.

Risk factors for acute respiratory failure

Common ones are:

  • tobacco products consumption
  • alcohol overuse
  • familial trace of respiratory diseases
  • spinal cord injuries
  • injuries sustained by the brain
  • injuries sustained by the chest
  • autoimmune disorders
  • the long-term presence of respiratory problems i.e. cancerous lungs,  asthma, or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease

Diagnosing acute respiratory failure

Acute respiratory failure demands that it is quickly looked into and attended to medically.
Your doctor will first place you on an oxygen machine. After you have been stabilized he will then carry out the following diagnosis on you:

  • Performing a physical examination on you.
  • Asking questions relating to your health including that of your family members.
  • Checking the functional levels of oxygen and carbon dioxide in your blood and tissues. This is termed ‘arterial blood gas test’. He will likely use a device called a pulse oximetry device to achieve this.
  • Ordering for an X-ray on your chest. This will reveal any lung abnormalities.

Treatment for acute respiratory failure

After the cause of your acute respiratory failure has been diagnosed well, it will be first treated before your doctor goes ahead with any of the following options:

  • Pain medications administration for ease in breathing.
  • You can be placed on a breathing machine if you have a state called hypoxemia. This is in a simple explanation, a low oxygen amount in your body tissues. You don’t have to have any issues with breathing well before you placed on this machine. The machine will only help you take insufficient oxygen needed by your body. An alternative to this machine is the portable air tank. It can be readily gotten by recommendation from your doctor.
  • When it is obvious that you can no longer breathe well, a tube specially designed to help people with breathing problems breathe well will be inserted into your mouth or nose. The tube is fixed to a ventilator.
  • An artificial airway can be constructed right in your windpipe if the doctor sees that you will be having need of an artificial means of breathing oxygen. This is called a tracheostomy.
  • You will be given some good dose of oxygen from a ventilator in instances where you can no longer get enough of it from your normal breathing.

Long-term expectations

It is great news to inform you that you can actually see some improvement in your lung function. But that will be after you must have received the right combination of treatments for the underlying cause of the condition. A pulmonary rehabilitation might be necessary at some points. This includes counseling, education, and therapeutical exercise.
Sad news! Your damaged lungs can be completely destroyed by acute respiratory failure.
This is the more reason you have to see a doctor quickly for possible medical aids.

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