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A to Z: Respiratory Failure

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May also be called: Acute Respiratory Failure; Chronic Respiratory Failure

The lungs help transfer oxygen into and remove carbon dioxide from blood. Muscles around the lungs, such as the diaphragm, help them pull air in and push air out of the body.

A problem in one or both of these systems — the lungs or the muscles — can lead to respiratory (RES-pir-uh-tor-ee) failure. In this condition, the lungs do not pass enough oxygen into the blood or don’t properly remove carbon dioxide from the blood.

More to Know

When we inhale, oxygen-rich air goes into air sacs in the lungs called alveoli. The walls of the alveoli contain tiny blood vessels called capillaries. When air reaches the alveoli, oxygen passes into the blood in the capillaries. While that’s happening, carbon dioxide (a waste gas) moves in the opposite direction, going from the capillaries to the alveoli, and then leaving the body when we exhale.

This process is called gas exchange. Respiratory failure is when something causes a problem with the lungs’ gas exchange functions. In respiratory failure:

  • oxygen levels in the blood can be too low
  • carbon dioxide levels in the blood can be too high

Either of these conditions can eventually lead to complications in the heart and brain and become life-threatening.

Early symptoms of respiratory failure include shortness of breath, rapid breathing, and headache. As it progresses, signs can include blue skin, lips, or fingernails; confusion; sleepiness; seizures; and coma.

Common causes of respiratory failure include respiratory diseases like chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), spinal cord injuries, and genetic disorders. Children have weaker chest walls and smaller lungs than adults, so viral infections, asthma, and lung disorders resulting from premature birth also can lead to respiratory failure.

Respiratory failure can be sudden (acute) or develop over time (chronic). Acute respiratory failure is usually treated in a hospital intensive care unit. Chronic respiratory failure is often treated at home with the use of supplemental oxygen.

Keep in Mind

The outcome for someone with respiratory failure depends on the underlying cause and the person’s age and overall health. In general, healthy teens and young adults tend to do better than older people. Very young children and babies may go into respiratory failure more quickly and should be watched closely. Avoiding smoke and other airborne irritants can reduce the risk of chronic respiratory failure.

All A to Z dictionary entries are regularly reviewed by KidsHealth medical experts.