Acute Respiratory Failure

By Medically reviewed by hellodoktor


What is acute respiratory failure?

Acute respiratory failure occurs when fluid builds up in the air sacs in your lungs. When that happens, your lungs can’t release oxygen into your blood. In turn, your organs can’t get enough oxygen-rich blood to function. You can also develop acute respiratory failure if your lungs can’t remove carbon dioxide from your blood.

Respiratory failure happens when the capillaries, or tiny blood vessels, surrounding your air sacs can’t properly exchange carbon dioxide for oxygen. The condition can be acute or chronic. With acute respiratory failure, you experience immediate symptoms from not having enough oxygen in your body. In most cases, this failure may lead to death if it’s not treated quickly.

How common is acute respiratory failure?

Please discuss with your doctor for further information.


What are the symptoms of acute respiratory failure?

The symptoms of acute respiratory failure depend on its underlying cause and the levels of carbon dioxide and oxygen in your blood.

People with a high carbon dioxide level may experience:

People with low oxygen levels may experience:

  • An inability to breathe
  • Bluish coloration in the skin, fingertips, or lips

People with acute failure of the lungs and low oxygen levels may experience:

  • Restlessness
  • Anxiety
  • Sleepiness
  • Loss of consciousness
  • Rapid and shallow breathing
  • Racing heart
  • Irregular heartbeats (arrhythmias)
  • Profuse sweating

There may be some symptoms not listed above. If you have any concerns about a symptom, please consult your doctor.

When should I see my doctor?

If you have any signs or symptoms listed above or have any questions, please consult with your doctor. Everyone’s body acts differently. It is always best to discuss with your doctor what is best for your situation.


What causes acute respiratory failure?

Acute respiratory failure has several different causes:


When something lodges in your throat, you may have trouble getting enough oxygen into your lungs. Obstruction can also occur in people with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) or asthma when an exacerbation causes the airways to become narrow.


An injury that impairs or compromises your respiratory system can adversely affect the amount of oxygen in your blood. For instance, an injury to the spinal cord or brain can immediately affect your breathing. The brain tells the lungs to breathe. If the brain can’t relay messages due to injury or damage, the lungs can’t continue to function properly.

An injury to the ribs or chest can also hamper the breathing process. These injuries can impair your ability to inhale enough oxygen into your lungs.

Acute respiratory distress syndrome

Acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS) is a serious condition characterized by low oxygen in the blood. ARDS affects you if you already have an underlying health problem such as:

  • Pneumonia
  • Pancreatitis (inflammation of the pancreas)
  • Severe trauma
  • Sepsis
  • Severe brain injuries
  • Lung injuries caused by inhalation of smoke or chemical products

It can occur while you’re in the hospital being treated for your underlying condition.

Drug or alcohol abuse

If you overdose on drugs or drink too much alcohol, you can impair brain function and hinder your ability to breathe in or exhale.

Chemical inhalation

Inhaling toxic chemicals, smoke, or fumes can also cause acute respiratory failure. These chemicals may injure or damage the tissues of your lungs, including the air sacs and capillaries.


A stroke occurs when your brain experiences tissue death or damage on one or both sides of the brain. Often, it affects only one side. Although stroke does present some warning signs, such as slurred speech or confusion, it typically occurs quickly. If you have a stroke, you may lose your ability to breathe properly.


Infections are a common cause of respiratory distress. Pneumonia in particular, may cause respiratory failure, even in the absence of ARDS.

Risk factors

What increases my risk for acute respiratory failure?

There are many risk factors for acute respiratory failure, such as:

  • Tobacco use
  • Excessive alcohol consumption
  • A family history of respiratory disease or conditions
  • An injury to the spine, brain, or chest
  • A compromised immune system
  • Chronic (long-term) respiratory problems, such as cancer of the lungs, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), or asthma

Diagnosis & treatment

The information provided is not a substitute for any medical advice. ALWAYS consult with your doctor for more information.

How is acute respiratory failure diagnosed?

The diagnosis of respiratory failure requires an arterial blood gas which provides information on the levels of the blood oxygen and carbon dioxide levels. An arterial blood gas simply involves a needle connected to a syringe, which is then inserted at the wrist directly into the point where the pulse can be felt. Sometimes the pulse at the wrist is weakened and so a different site has to be used: this is usually the groin and, less commonly, the elbow.

Once the diagnosis has been made, further investigations will be required to find the underlying cause. This may include:

  • Chest X-ray: this may show infection, fluid or tumours of the lung.
  • Blood tests: these may include full blood count, kidney tests and liver function tests. They may help to work out the cause and also to detect any factors that may be worsening the respiratory failure, such as a low blood haemoglobin level (anaemia).
  • Troponin blood tests: these are used to determine if there has been recent heart injury – for example, a heart attack which may have caused the respiratory failure.
  • Thyroid function tests: an underactive thyroid gland, when a long-term (chronic) condition, may cause respiratory failure with a raised carbon dioxide level.
  • Spirometry: this is used to measure the lung volumes and capacity and is useful in the evaluation of chronic cases.
  • A heart ultrasound scan (echocardiography): this can look for cardiac causes, such as a leaking heart valve or heart failure.

How is acute respiratory failure treated?

Treatment usually addresses any underlying conditions you may have. Your doctor will then treat your respiratory failure with a variety of options.

  • Your doctor may prescribe pain medications or other medicines to help you breathe better.
  • If you can breathe adequately on your own and your hypoxemia is mild, you may receive oxygen from an oxygen tank to help you breathe better. Portable air tanks are available if your condition requires one.
  • If you can’t breathe adequately on your own, your doctor may insert a breathing tube into your mouth or nose, and connect the tube to a ventilator to help you breathe.
  • If you require prolonged ventilator support, an operation that creates an artificial airway in the windpipe called a tracheostomy may be necessary.
  • You may receive oxygen via an oxygen tank or ventilator to help you breathe better.

Lifestyle changes & home remedies

What are some lifestyle changes or home remedies that can help me manage acute respiratory failure?

If you have any questions, please consult with your doctor to better understand the best solution for you.

Hello Health Group does not provide medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.