What is respiratory failure?

Respiratory failure is a condition characterised by abnormal levels of oxygen and carbon dioxide in the blood due to inadequate gas exchange in the lungs.

Respiratory failure symptoms

Low levels of oxygen can cause symptoms such as:

  • shortness of breath
  • fatigue
  • irregular heartbeats
  • a bluish colour on the skin, lips and fingernails
  • loss of consciousness

A high level of carbon dioxide can cause rapid breathing and confusion.

What are the causes of respiratory failure?

Any disease, condition or accident that impairs breathing, can cause respiratory failure. These include:

– conditions affecting the nerves and muscles that control breathing, such as:

  • muscular dystrophy
  • spinal cord injuries
  • stroke
  • amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS)

– injuries to the chest or lungs or problems with the spine, such as scoliosis (a curve in the spine)

– lung conditions, such as:

Diagnosing respiratory failure

To diagnose respiratory failure, firstly the oxygen and carbon dioxide levels in your blood are checked. Your doctor may carry out one of two tests:

Pulse oximetry

In this test, a small sensor is attached to your finger or ear, which uses light to detect how much oxygen is in the blood.

Arterial blood gas test

This test involves a blood sample being taken and sent to a laboratory for further analysis.

Other tests to diagnose respiratory failure may include:

Chest x-ray

You may need to have a chest x-ray to determine the underlying cause of respiratory failure.

Electrocardiogram (ECG)

If an abnormal heart rhythm (arrhthymia) is suspected as a result of respiratory failure, then an ECG may be necessary.

Respiratory failure treatment

Chronic (long-term) respiratory failure can be treated at home, or if the symptoms are severe, in a long-term care centre.

Acute respiratory failure, on the other hand, is often classed as a medical emergency, which requires treatment in intensive care.

Treatment involves providing much-needed oxygen to the lungs and other organs, as well as removing carbon dioxide from the body. It will also involve treating the underlying cause of the condition.

Discover our respiratory medicine specialists

Our lung care experts are world-leaders who offer the latest and most innovative diagnostics and treatments, supported by an experienced multi-disciplinary team