respiratory failure

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Respiratory Failure



Respiratory failure is nearly any condition that affects breathing function or the lungs themselves and can result in failure of the lungs to function properly. The main tasks of the lungs and chest are to get oxygen from the air that is inhaled into the bloodstream, and, at the same to time, to eliminate carbon dioxide (CO2) from the blood through air that is breathed out. In respiratory failure, the level of oxygen in the blood becomes dangerously low, and/or the level of CO2 becomes dangerously high. There are two ways in which this can happen. Either the process by which oxygen and CO2 are exchanged between the blood and the air spaces of the lungs (a process called "gas exchange") breaks down, or the movement of air in and out of the lungs (ventilation) does not take place properly.


Respiratory failure often is divided into two main types. One of them, called hypoxemic respiratory failure, occurs when something interferes with normal gas exchange. Too little oxygen gets into the blood (hypoxemia), and all organs and tissues in the body suffer as a result. One common type of hypoxemic failure, occurring in both adults and prematurely born infants, is respiratory distress syndrome, a condition in which fluid or tissue changes prevent oxygen from passing out of the air sacs of the lungs into the circulating blood. Hypoxemia also may result from spending time at high altitudes (where there is less oxygen in the air); various forms of lung disease that separate oxygen from blood in the lungs; severe anemia ("low blood"); and blood vessel disorders that shunt blood away from the lungs, thus precluding the lungs from picking up oxygen.
The other main type of respiratory failure is ventilatory failure, occurring when, for any reason, breathing is not strong enough to rid the body of CO2. Then CO2 builds up in the blood (hypercapnia). Ventilatory failure can result when the respiratory center in the brainstem fails to drive breathing; when muscle disease keeps the chest wall from expanding when breathing in; or when a patient has chronic obstructive lung disease that makes it very difficult to exhale air with its CO2. Many of the specific diseases and conditions that cause respiratory failure cause both too little oxygen in the blood (hypoxemia) and abnormal ventilation.

Causes and symptoms

Several different abnormalities of breathing function can cause respiratory failure. The major categories, with specific examples of each, are:
  • Obstruction of the airways. Examples are chronic bronchitis with heavy secretions; emphysema; cystic fibrosis; asthma (a condition in which it is very hard to get air in and out through narrowed breathing tubes).
  • Weak breathing. This can be caused by drugs or alcohol, which depress the respiratory center; extreme obesity; or sleep apnea, where patients stop breathing for long periods while sleeping.
  • Muscle weakness. This can be caused by a muscle disease called myasthenia; muscular dystrophy; polio; a stroke that paralyzes the respiratory muscles; injury of the spinal cord; or Lou Gehrig's disease.
  • Lung diseases, including severe pneumonia. Pulmonary edema, or fluid in the lungs, can be the source of respiratory failure. Also, it can often be a result of heart disease; respiratory distress syndrome; pulmonary fibrosis and other scarring diseases of the lung; radiation exposure; burn injury when smoke is inhaled; and widespread lung cancer.
  • An abnormal chest wall (a condition that can be caused by scoliosis or severe injury of the chest wall).
A majority of patients with respiratory failure are short of breath. Both low oxygen and high carbon dioxide can impair mental functions. Patients may become confused and disoriented and find it impossible to carry out their normal activities or do their work. Marked CO2 excess can cause headaches and, in time, a semi-conscious state, or even coma. Low blood oxygen causes the skin to take on a bluish tinge. It also can cause an abnormal heart rhythm (arrhythmia). Physical examination may show a patient who is breathing rapidly, is restless, and has a rapid pulse. Lung disease may cause abnormal sounds heard when listening to the chest with a stethoscope: wheezing in asthma, "crackles" in obstructive lung disease. A patient with ventilatory failure is prone to gasp for breath, and may use the neck muscles to help expand the chest.


The symptoms and signs of respiratory failure are not specific. Rather, they depend on what is causing the failure and on the patient's condition before it developed. Good general health and some degree of "reserve" lung function will help see a patient through an episode of respiratory failure. The key diagnostic determination is to measure the amount of oxygen, carbon dioxide, and acid in the blood at regular intervals. A sudden low oxygen level in the lung tissue may cause the arteries of the lungs to narrow. This, in turn, causes the resistance in these vessels to increase, which can be measured using a special catheter. A high blood level of CO2 may cause increased pressure in the fluid surrounding the brain and spinal cord; this, too, can be measured.


Nearly all patients are given oxygen as the first treatment. Then the underlying cause of respiratory failure must be treated. For example, antibiotics are used to fight a lung infection, or, for an asthmatic patient, a drug to open up the airways is commonly prescribed.
A patient whose breathing remains very poor will require a ventilator to aid breathing. A plastic tube is placed through the nose or mouth into the windpipe and is attached to a machine that forces air into the lungs. This can be a lifesaving treatment and should be continued until the patient's own lungs can take over the work of breathing. It is very important to use no more pressure than is necessary to provide sufficient oxygen; otherwise ventilation may cause further lung damage. Drugs are given to keep the patient calm, and the amount of fluid in the body is carefully adjusted so that the heart and lungs can function as normally as possible. Steroids, which combat inflammation, may sometimes be helpful but they can cause complications, including weakening the breathing muscles.
The respiratory therapist has a number of methods available to help patients overcome respiratory failure. They include:
  • Suctioning the lungs through a small plastic tube passed through the nose, in order to remove secretions from the airways that the patient cannot cough up.
  • Postural drainage, in which the patient is propped up at an angle or tilted to help secretions drain out of the lungs. The therapist may clap the patient on the chest or back to loosen the secretions, or a vibrator may be used for the same purpose.
  • Breathing exercises often are prescribed after the patient recovers. They make the patient feel better and help to strengthen the muscles that aid breathing. One useful method is for the patient to suck on a tube attached to a clear plastic hosing containing a ball so as to keep the ball lifted. Regular deep breathing exercises are simpler and often just as helpful. Another technique is to have the patient breathe out against pursed lips to increase pressure in the airways and keep them from collapsing.


The outlook for patients with respiratory failure depends chiefly on its cause. If the underlying disease can be effectively treated, with the patient's breathing supported in the meantime, the outlook is usually good.
Care is needed not to expose the patient to polluting substances in the atmosphere while recovering from respiratory failure; this could tip the balance against recovery. When respiratory failure develops slowly, pressure may build up in the lung's blood vessels, a condition called pulmonary hypertension. This condition may damage the vessels, worsen hypoxemia, and cause the heart to fail. If it is not possible to provide enough oxygen to the body, complications involving either the brain or the heart may prove fatal.
If the kidneys fail or the diseased lungs become infected, the prognosis is worse. In some cases, the primary disease causing the lungs to fail is irreversible. The patient, family, and physician together then must decide whether to prolong life by ventilator support. Occasionally, lung transplantation is a possibility, but it is a highly complex procedure and is not widely available


Because respiratory failure is not a disease itself, but the end result of many lung disorders, the best prevention is to treat any lung disease promptly and effectively. It is also important to make sure that any patient who has had lung disease is promptly treated for any respiratory infection (even of the upper respiratory tract). Patients with lung problems should also avoid exposure to pollutants, as much as is possible. Once respiratory failure is present, it is best for a patient to receive treatment in an intensive care unit, where specialized personnel and all the needed equipment are available. Close supervision of treatment, especially mechanical ventilation, will help minimize complications that would compound the problem.



National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute. P.O. Box 30105, Bethesda, MD 20824-0105. (301) 251-1222.
National Respiratory Distress Syndrome Foundation. P.O. Box 723, Montgomeryville, PA 18936.

Key terms

Chronic obstructive lung disease — A common form of lung disease in which breathing, and therefore gas exchange, is labored and increasingly difficult.
Gas exchange — The process by which oxygen is extracted from inhaled air into the bloodstream, and, at the same time, carbon dioxide is eliminated from the blood and exhaled.
Hypoxemia — An abnormally low amount of oxygen in the blood, the major consequence of respiratory failure, when the lungs no longer are able to perform their chief function of gas exchange.
Pulmonary fibrosis — An end result of many forms of lung disease (especially chronic inflammatory conditions). Normal lung tissue is converted to scarred, "fibrotic" tissue that cannot carry out gas exchange.


inability to perform or to function properly.
adult failure to thrive a nursing diagnosis accepted by the North American Nursing Diagnosis Association, defined as a progressive functional deterioration of a physical and cognitive nature. The individual's ability to live with multisystem diseases, cope with ensuing problems, and manage his/her care are remarkably diminished.
bone marrow failure failure of the hematopoietic function of the bone marrow; see also bone marrow suppression.
congestive heart failure see congestive heart failure.
heart failure see heart failure.
kidney failure renal failure.
multiple organ failure failure of two or more organ systems in a critically ill patient; see also multiple organ failure.
renal failure see renal failure.
respiratory failure see respiratory failure.
failure to thrive (failure to thrive syndrome) physical and developmental retardation in infants and small children. The syndrome can be seen in children with a physical illness, but the term is most often taken to mean failure to thrive due to psychosocial effects such as maternal deprivation. The syndrome was first noticed when European psychiatrists studied the development of babies who had spent the first five years of their lives in institutions where they were deprived of the emotional warmth of a mother, father, or other primary caregiver.

Characteristics of the failure to thrive syndrome include lack of physical growth (for example, weight and height below the third percentile for age) and below normal achievement in fine and gross motor, social-adaptive, and language skills as assessed by psychometric testing using a tool such as the Denver Developmental Screening Test. Additionally, the child with this syndrome displays withdrawing behavior, avoidance of eye contact, and stiffness or flaccid posture when held. These children often have a history of irritability, feeding problems, and disturbed sleep patterns.

Parents of infants with failure to thrive syndrome typically display feelings of concern and inadequacy. The infant who is feeding poorly and is irritable may elicit a response in the caregiver that reflects tension and frustration. The need for comfort and nurturing by the infant may not be met, and this may lead to a cycle that exacerbates feeding problems.

Intervention encompasses identification of infants and mothers at risk for the syndrome and care of both mother or primary caregiver and infant. The major goals are to encourage the mother to express her feelings without fear of rejection, to model the role of mother and teach her nurturing behaviors, and to promote her self-esteem and confidence. Important nursing goals in the care of the infant include providing optimal nutrition, comfort, and rest; meeting the infant's psychosocial needs; and supplying emotional nurturance and sensory stimulation appropriate to the assessed developmental level.
ventilatory failure respiratory failure.


pertaining to respiration.
acute respiratory distress syndrome (adult respiratory distress syndrome) a group of symptoms accompanying fulminant pulmonary edema and resulting in acute respiratory failure; see also acute respiratory distress syndrome.
respiratory care
1. the health care profession providing, under qualified supervision, diagnostic evaluation, therapy, monitoring, and rehabilitation of patients with cardiopulmonary disorders; it also employs educational activities to support patients and their families and to promote cardiovascular health among the general public.
2. the care provided by members of this profession.
3. the diagnostic and therapeutic use of medical gases and their administering apparatus, environmental control systems, humidification, aerosols, medications, ventilatory support, bronchopulmonary drainage, pulmonary rehabilitation, cardiopulmonary resuscitation, and airway management.
respiratory distress syndrome, neonatal (respiratory distress syndrome of the newborn (RDS)) a condition of the newborn marked by dyspnea with cyanosis, heralded by such prodromal signs as dilatation of the nares, grunting on exhalation, and retraction of the suprasternal notch or costal margins. It usually occurs in newborns who are preterm, have diabetic mothers, or were delivered by cesarean section; sometimes there is no apparent predisposing cause.

This is the major cause of death in neonates and survivors have a high risk for chronic neurologic complications. No one factor is known to cause the condition; however, prematurity and interrupted development of the surfactant system is thought to be the major causative factor. Surfactant is secreted by the epithelial cells of the alveoli. It acts as a detergent, decreasing the surface tension of fluids that line the alveoli and bronchioles and allowing for uniform expansion of the lung and maintenance of lung expansion. When there is an inadequate amount of surfactant, a great deal of effort is required to re-expand the alveoli with air; thus the newborn must struggle for each breath. Insufficient expansion of the alveoli results in partial or complete collapse of the lung (atelectasis). This in turn produces hypoxemia and elevated serum carbon dioxide levels.

The hypoxemia causes metabolic acidosis from increased production of lactic acid and respiratory acidosis due to the hypercapnia. The lowered pH constricts pulmonary blood vessels and inhibits intake of oxygen, thus producing more hypoxemia and interfering with the transport of substances necessary for the production of the sorely needed surfactant.
Patient Care. In order to minimize the hazards of oxygen toxicity and retinopathy of prematurity, the blood gases of the newborn with respiratory distress syndrome must be carefully monitored to assess response to therapy. The goal is to administer only as much oxygen as is necessary to maintain an optimal level of oxygenation.

To improve respiratory function, intubation, suctioning of the air passages, and continuous positive airway pressure via nasal prongs are commonly used, as well as instillation of artificial surfactant. Monitoring is conducted using transcutaneous oxygen monitoring or a pulse oximeter. To optimize breathing effort and facilitate air exchange, the newborn is positioned on the back with a shoulder support to keep the neck slightly extended, or on the side with the head supported. Because of the drying effect of oxygen therapy and the prohibition of oral fluids, mouth care must be given frequently to prevent drying and cracking of the lips and oral mucosa.
respiratory failure a life-threatening condition in which respiratory function is inadequate to maintain the body's need for oxygen supply and carbon dioxide removal while at rest; it usually occurs when a patient with chronic airflow limitation develops an infection or otherwise suffers an additional strain on already seriously impaired respiratory functions. Inadequate or unsuccessful treatment of respiratory insufficiency from a variety of causes can lead to respiratory failure. Called also ventilatory failure.

Early symptoms include dyspnea, wheezing, and apprehension; cyanosis is rarely present. As the condition worsens the patient becomes drowsy and mentally confused and may slip into a coma. blood gas analysis is an important tool in diagnosing respiratory failure and assessing effectiveness of treatment. The condition is a medical emergency that can rapidly progress to irreversible cardiopulmonary failure and death. Treatment is concerned with improving ventilation and oxygenation of tissues, restoring and maintaining fluid balance and acid-base balance, and stabilizing cardiac function.
respiratory insufficiency a condition in which respiratory function is inadequate to meet the body's needs when increased physical activity places extra demands on it. Insufficiency occurs as a result of progressive degenerative changes in the alveolar structure and the capillary tissues in the pulmonary bed, as, for example, in chronic airflow limitation and pulmonary fibrosis. Treatment is essentially supportive and symptomatic. If the condition is not successfully managed it may progress to respiratory failure.
respiratory therapist a health care professional skilled in the treatment and management of patients with respiratory problems, who administers respiratory care. The minimum educational requirement is an associate degree, providing knowledge of anatomy, physiology, pharmacology, and medicine sufficient to serve as a supervisor and consultant. Those registered by the National Board for Respiratory Therapy are designated Registered Respiratory Therapist (RRT).
respiratory therapy respiratory care.
respiratory therapy technician a health care professional who has completed a specialized one- or two-year educational program and who performs routine care, management, and treatment of patients with respiratory problems under the supervision of a respiratory therapist. Such programs are usually found in community colleges and are accredited by the Joint Review Committee for Respiratory Therapy Education.

respiratory failure

loss of pulmonary function either acute or chronic that results in hypoxemia or hypercarbia; final common pathway for myriad respiratory disorders.

respiratory failure

An acute or chronic condition marked by severely impaired pulmonary function, characterized by elevated carbon dioxide or decreased oxygen, or both, in the arterial blood and often by the necessity of a ventilator to assist breathing.

respiratory failure

the inability of the cardiovascular and pulmonary systems to maintain an adequate exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide in the lungs. Respiratory failure may be caused by a failure in oxygenation or in ventilation. Oxygenation failure is characterized by refractory hypoxemia and occurs in diseases that affect the alveoli or interstitial tissues of the lungs, such as alveolar edema, emphysema, fungal infections, leukemia, lobar pneumonia, lung carcinoma, various pneumoconioses, pulmonary eosinophilia, sarcoidosis, or tuberculosis. Ventilatory failure, characterized by increased arterial tension of carbon dioxide, occurs in acute conditions in which retained pulmonary secretions cause increased airway resistance and decreased lung compliance, as in bronchitis. Ventilation may also be reduced by depression of the respiratory center by barbiturates or opiates, hypoxia, hypercapnia, intracranial diseases, trauma, or lesions of the neuromuscular system or thoracic cage. Respiratory failure in preexisting chronic lung diseases may be precipitated by added stress, as with cardiac failure, surgery, anesthesia, or respiratory tract infections. Treatment of respiratory failure includes clearing the airways by suction, bronchodilators, or tracheostomy or endotracheal tube with ventilator support; antibiotics for infections that are usually present; anticoagulants for pulmonary thromboemboli; and electrolyte replacement in fluid imbalance. Oxygen may be administered in some cases; in others it may further decrease the respiratory reflex by removing the stimulus of a decreased level of oxygen. Chronic respiratory failure may result in cor pulmonale with congestive heart failure and respiratory acidosis. See also acute respiratory failure, airway obstruction, carbon dioxide, hypercapnia, hyperventilation, hypoxemia, hypoxia, respiratory acidosis.

res·pi·ra·tory fail·ure

(res'pir-ă-tōr-ē fāl'yŭr)
Loss of pulmonary function, either acute or chronic, that results in hypoxemia or hypercarbia; final common pathway for many respiratory disorders.

res·pi·ra·tory fail·ure

(res'pir-ă-tōr-ē fāl'yŭr)
Loss of pulmonary function, either acute or chronic; final common pathway for myriad respiratory disorders.


inability to perform or to function properly.

failure to conceive
said of cows which return to estrus after mating.
kidney failure
see renal failure.
failure of passive transfer
see maternal immunity.
respiratory failure
called also ventilatory failure; see respiratory failure.
failure to thrive
used generally to describe young animals which are not gaining weight or growing; can be due to disease or management problems. In llamas, used to describe a specific syndrome in which the young are normal in early age, but later stop growing. Rickets is one possible cause, but there may be others.


pertaining to respiration. See also pulmonary.

acute respiratory disease of turkeys
see turkey coryza.
acute respiratory distress syndrome
a noncardiogenic pulmonary edema characterized by disruption of pulmonary capillary endothelium and accumulation of high-protein edema fluid in the lungs. See also shock lung, atypical interstitial pneumonia, neonatal maladjustment syndrome.
respiratory arrest
sudden complete cessation of respiratory movement.
respiratory burst of neutrophils
the series of biochemical reactions that take place within a neutrophil when a particle is phagocytosed. Important in the host defense mechanisms.
respiratory centers
see respiratory centers.
chronic respiratory disease
see chronic respiratory disease.
respiratory cilia
see cilia.
respiratory clearance
clearance of inhaled particles from the respiratory system by absorption of finally solubilized material through the respiratory epithelium, passage through the alveolar epithelium at special sites near the alveolar ducts, or to the exterior by a flow of alveolar fluid to the bronchi, a moving sheet of mucus into the bronchioles, up the bronchioles, bronchi and trachea with the assistance of repiratory cilia to the pharynx.
respiratory control
quantitative relationship between oxidative phosphorylation and electron transfer. Traditionally presented as a P/O ratio indicating the number of ATP molecules synthesized per atom of oxygen consumed.
respiratory control ratio
ratio of oxygen uptake in the presence of ADP to that in the absence of ADP. Used as an index of the functional integrity of prepared mitochondria since it is above 10 in good preparation and unity in aged or damaged mitochondria.
respiratory cycle
the cycle of inspiration, expiration, pause of the normal resting cycle depends on sensors in the respiratory system which provide stimuli to initiate the next part of the cycle.
respiratory dead space
see dead space (2).
respiratory depression
the rate and/or depth of respiration are insufficient to maintain adequate gas exchange in the lungs; a subjective judgment tending to be superseded, at least during anesthesia, by instrumentation. See respiration monitors.
respiratory depth
amplitude of each respiratory movement.
respiratory difficulty
see dyspnea.
respiratory disease pattern
may be aerogenous when the pathogen is inhaled or hematogenous when the pathogen is delivered to the lungs in the blood supply.
respiratory distress syndrome of newborn (RDS)
see hyaline membrane disease.
respiratory exchange ratio
the carbon dioxide output divided by the oxygen uptake; see also respiratory quotient (below).
respiratory failure
a life-threatening condition in which respiratory function is inadequate to maintain the body's need for oxygen supply and carbon dioxide removal while at rest; called also acute ventilatory failure. The type of failure varies with the CO2 content of the blood and may be asphyxial, when there is gasping, dyspneic when there is dyspnea, paralytic when the respiratory movements gradually fade away, tachypneic when the movements are fast and shallow.
respiratory grunting
grunting at the peak of each inspiration, or on percussion of the chest wall; indicates pain in the pleura.
respiratory insufficiency
a condition in which respiratory function is inadequate to meet the body's needs when increased physical activity places extra demands on it. Insufficiency occurs as a result of progressive degenerative changes in the alveolar structure and the capillary tissues in the pulmonary bed.
respiratory noises
includes sneezing, snorting, stridor, stertor (snoring), wheezing, roaring, grunting.
respiratory paralysis
see respiratory failure (above).
respiratory quotient (RQ)
the ratio of the volume of expired carbon dioxide to the volume of oxygen absorbed by the lungs per unit of time. Called also respiratory exchange ratio (above).
respiratory rate
the number of respirations per minute. Normal rates per minute are: horses 8 to 10; cattle 10 to 30; sheep and pigs 10 to 20; goats 25 to 35; dogs 10 to 30; cats 20 to 30.
respiratory rhythm
normally consists of three phase cycles of inspiration, expiration, pause; prolongation of inspiration suggests obstruction of the upper respiratory tract, prolongation of expiration, or a double respiratory effort suggests loss of recoil elasticity of the lungs. See also biot's respirations, cheyne-stokes respiration.
respiratory secretion
includes samples collected by nasal swab, nasopharyngeal swab, percutaneous tracheobronchial lavage and fiberoptic endoscopic sampling. Assessment is by laboratory examination for cellular content, bacteria, viruses, helminth parasites, fungi.
respiratory system
the group of specialized organs whose specific function is to provide for the transfer of oxygen from the air to the blood and of waste carbon dioxide from the blood to the air. These functions are performed by the tubular and cavernous organs which allow atmospheric air to reach the membranes across which gases are exchanged with the blood. The system includes the organs of the respiratory tract (below) plus the respiratory centers in the medulla. The supportive roles of the nervous system, the muscular, cardiovascular and hemopoietic systems are also essential.
respiratory tract
the organs of the tract include the upper respiratory tract of the nasal cavities, the pharynx, larynx, trachea and bronchi, and the lower respiratory tract comprising the bronchioles and alveoli of the lungs.
respiratory viruses
see Table 8.2.
References in periodicals archive ?
Randomized, prospective trial of noninvasive positive pressure ventilation in acute respiratory failure.
Efficacy and economic assessment of conventional ventilatory support versus extracorporeal membrane oxygenation for severe adult respiratory failure (CESAR): A multicentre randomised controlled trial.
The disadvantages of NIPPV is that it can,t be used in patients with aspiratory risk or excessive secretion, loss of preventive airway reflex and upper airway obstruction and those who require entubation, it might not be effective in acute respiratory failure with severe hypoxemy, it may lead to distension of stomach, some lesions on the skin, facial ache, sense of drying in the nose, eye irritation (conjunctivity), clostrophobia, sleep disorders and mask leakage.
Patients receiving mechanical ventilation for respiratory failure who fail an SBT should receive a stable, nonfatiguing, comfortable form of ventilatory support.
A French study (18), conducted on patients intubated for acute respiratory failure due to COPD or restrictive diseases confirmed the finding of a shorter duration of invasive mechanical ventilation using NIV versus traditional weaning.
The family is suing the ministry and two doctors, a Bahraini and an Indian, who operated on Ms Al Daylami after she allegedly suffered respiratory failure.
Errors associated with the postoperative acute respiratory failure PSI were the most expensive of the seven patient-safety event classes, costing an average of $106,370 over the 90-day period, along with the highest 90-day death rate (12%), according to the researchers.
1% from 2004 to 2006, while the incidence of bed sores and postoperative respiratory failure worsened during that time.
DALLAS -- The incidence of pulmonary complications after major abdominal surgery climbed nationally by 21% overall between 1989 and 2004, with the biggest increases occurring in respiratory failure and adult respiratory distress syndrome, Dr.
Following two operations Mr Humberstone suffered further respiratory failure and kidney problems and his condition quickly deteriorated.
Charity chiefs have revealed that it is "exploring" working with Birmingham East and North Primary Care Trust (PCT) to provide a heart failure and respiratory failure inpatient unit at the hospital.

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