Acute Respiratory Failure

What Is Acute Respiratory Failure?

Acute respiratory failure is a potentially fatal medical condition caused by fluid buildup in the lung’s air sacs. This buildup interferes with critical pulmonary functions in two ways. First, the lungs are blocked from transmitting oxygen to the bloodstream, leading to the gradual starvation of the body’s organs. Secondly, the lungs are prevented from removing carbon dioxide, a waste product of cellular respiration. This results in high levels of bloodstream toxins. Acute respiratory failure should be treated as an emergency. There is also a chronic version of respiratory failure that requires long-term medical management.  

At Baptist Health, respiratory care is one of our clinical specialties. Our physicians, respiratory therapists, and other care providers deliver comprehensive care, from diagnosis to treatment, for a wide range of respiratory issues, both chronic and acute. You’ll breathe easier, knowing that we’re on your side in the battle for lung health.

What Are the Symptoms of Acute Respiratory Failure?

Acute respiratory failure shuts off biological processes that are integral to human health. There are several telltale symptoms:

  • Arrhythmias or too-rapid heartbeats
  • Blue-tinged extremities, especially lips and fingers
  • Feelings of anxiety and disorientation
  • Jumpiness
  • Heavy sweating
  • Too-rapid or labored breathing
  • Wooziness followed by passing out.

There is some variation in symptoms, depending on whether your blood is primarily low in oxygen, called hypoxemia, or high in carbon dioxide, called hypercapnia. You can suffer from both conditions at the same time.

Some individuals are more at risk for respiratory failure than others. Included among the former are smokers, heavy drinkers, and persons with chronic respiratory conditions, compromised immune systems, or injuries that impact the chest or nervous system.

What Causes Acute Respiratory Failure? How Do I Prevent It?

Acute respiratory failure has wide-ranging and disparate causes:

  • Acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS): ARDS is a medical condition marked by low levels of oxygenated blood. It often results from a prior medical problem, such as pneumonia, pancreatitis, or septic infection, and, in turn, proceeds the onset of respiratory failure.
  • Alcohol or drug abuse: Excessive alcohol or drug consumption can reduce your brain’s ability to properly regulate breathing.
  • Breathing obstructions: Windpipe injuries or foreign objects lodged in the throat can impede the flow of oxygen to the lungs. Narrowing of the bronchial tubes by asthma,  chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder (COPD), or cystic fibrosis can have a similar effect.
  • Cardiac failure: The heart and lungs work in tandem to respirate and nourish the body. Heart failure can therefore have a catastrophic effect on pulmonary functions.
  • Chemical inhalation: Breathing in heavy smoke, harsh fumes, or toxic chemicals can initiate respiratory failure.
  • Infections: Infections, including pneumonia, are frequently behind cases of respiratory failure.
  • Physical injury: Your neurological system plays a key role in the healthy functioning of the respiratory system. Injuries to the brain or spinal column can greatly weaken the pulmonary function. Scoliosis, an excessive curvature of the spine, can also be an issue.
  • Stroke: A stroke is the death of brain tissue, leading to a loss of physiological function. Since the brain is involved in breathing, a major stroke can result in respiratory failure.

Preventing respiratory failure depends on preventing its causes. Choosing healthy behaviors – for example, avoiding alcohol or drug abuse – can have a positive impact in this regard.

How Is Acute Respiratory Failure Diagnosed?

Acute respiratory failure is a medical emergency requiring immediate action. To confirm a diagnosis, your physician may:

  • Document medical history: This will include general information about your health, as well as questions about the nature and severity of your current symptoms.
  • Conduct a physical exam: A stethoscope will allow your doctor to listen for abnormal breathing patterns or behaviors, including evidence of infected or fluid-filled lungs.
  • Order a chest X-ray or CT scan: X-rays and CT scans provide non-invasive, visual evidence of lung injury or inflammation.
  • Conduct pulse oximetry: A pulse oximeter is a non-invasive means of measuring the lung’s effectiveness in oxygenating the blood. Poorly oxygenated blood is indicative of a respiratory disorder. An arterial blood gas test is similar, but requires a blood draw.

If your breathing is labored, your physician may provide you with oxygen.

How Is Acute Respiratory Failure Treated?

The goal of any treatment for respiratory failure is to improve airflow to the lungs, with an eye to reestablishing a healthy equilibrium of oxygen and carbon dioxide in the blood. This may include:

  • Pain-relief medications to make breathing easier
  • Oxygen therapy to enhance cellular respiration and restore proper organ function
  • Use of mechanical ventilation for individuals incapable of drawing adequate breaths on their own
  • A tracheostomy, which is a surgical procedure for introducing air to the lungs through a tube in the windpipe, bypassing the mouth and nose.


The key to recovery from acute respiratory failure is receiving effective treatment for the underlying cause of the problem. It is certainly possible to overcome this serious medical condition, given the right set of circumstances and therapies. 

Untreated respiratory failure can result in life-threating complications. You may also experience complications from the treatment for your condition.

Complications of acute respiratory failure:

  • Shock
  • Organ failure
  • Stroke
  • Heart attack
  • Heart failure
  • Respiratory arrest
  • Pneumonia
  • Lung damage

When It Comes to Respiratory Health, We’re a Breath of Fresh Air

If you’re dealing with a respiratory ailment or condition, see your Baptist Health physician. He or she will be able to assess your condition and determine which medical treatments, if any, are most appropriate for you.

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