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What To Do In Case Of Acute Respiratory Failure?

In a person suffering from acute respiratory failure, the normal exchange that takes place between oxygen and carbon dioxide inside the lungs does not take place. Due to this, sufficient oxygen is not able to reach the brain, heart, or any other organs. Acute respiratory failure takes place when there is a fluid buildup in the air sacs of your lungs, which prevents the lungs from releasing oxygen into the bloodstream. Acute respiratory failure should be treated as a medical emergency, and it may result in death if it is not treated immediately. Here’s everything you need to know about what to do in case of acute respiratory failure.

What To Do In Case Of Acute Respiratory Failure?

What is Acute Respiratory Failure and How to Identify Acute Respiratory Failure?

Acute respiratory failure takes place due to a buildup of fluid in the air sacs of the lungs, which renders the lungs incapable of releasing oxygen into the bloodstream. This means that the organs do not get the required amount of oxygen-rich blood to function correctly.(1)

Acute respiratory failure can also develop if your lungs are not able to remove carbon dioxide from the bloodstream.

In acute respiratory failure, you will experience immediate symptoms that indicate you do not have enough amount of oxygen in the body. In most cases, acute respiratory failure can prove to be fatal if it is not treated immediately.

In order to identify acute respiratory failure, one needs to be aware of the symptoms. The symptoms of acute respiratory failure vary depending on the underlying cause of the condition and the exact amount of oxygen and carbon dioxide present in your blood at that moment.

Here are some of the common symptoms of acute respiratory failure.

In cases of high levels of carbon dioxide in the blood, people are likely to experience:

  • Confusion
  • Rapid breathing

People with low levels of oxygen in the blood may experience:

  • Bluish coloration on the lips, fingertips, or the skin
  • Inability to breathe
  • Shortness of breath

People who have already reached the stage of acute failure of the lungs combined with low oxygen levels are likely to experience:

  • Anxiety
  • Restlessness
  • Sleepiness or drowsiness
  • Loss of consciousness
  • Profuse sweating’
  • Racing heartbeat
  • Shallow and rapid breathing
  • Irregular heartbeat

Usually, the exact symptoms of acute respiratory failure will depend on the underlying cause.

Complications of Acute Respiratory Failure

As mentioned above, acute respiratory failure needs urgent treatment otherwise, it can prove to be fatal.

According to the American Thoracic Society, nearly 360,000 people experience acute respiratory failure within the United States every year.

Almost 36 percent of these people end up dying during the hospital stay following acute respiratory failure.(2)

However, this figure might be even higher, depending on the underlying cause of the condition. For example, a study published in the European Respiratory Review estimated that amongst the people in the hospital who have the most severe form of acute respiratory distress syndrome, there is a 42% mortality rate, which is quite high than previously estimated.(3)

An episode of acute respiratory failure can cause permanent damage to your lungs. Lungs require a steady supply of oxygen all the time. Due to the damage caused, some people may need to undergo a tracheotomy, which is a procedure that makes a hole in the neck, just below the vocal cords to help you breathe in the long term.

What To Do In The Case Of Acute Respiratory Failure?

Acute respiratory failure needs to be addressed immediately. If you are experiencing any of the symptoms described above, then you should call the emergency medical assistance number in your area, or else ask someone to take you to the nearest emergency room at the earliest.

You may be given oxygen to help you breathe and also to prevent tissue and organ death and brain damage. Once the doctor stabilizes your initial condition, certain steps will be taken to diagnose the condition that led to acute respiratory failure.

These steps may include:

  • Performing a physical examination
  • Ordering a chest X-ray to search for any abnormalities in your lungs
  • Asking you questions about your health history and also take down a detailed family medical history
  • Check the body’s oxygen and carbon dioxide levels with an arterial blood gas test or using a pulse oximetry device

After stabilizing the person, the next step to follow will be to treat acute respiratory failure. Treatment of this condition usually depends on dealing with the underlying condition that caused an acute respiratory failure in the first place. There are many treatment options available today for treating acute respiratory failure, including:

You will be prescribed pain medications and other medications that will help you breathe better.

If you are able to breathe correctly on your own and you only have mild hypoxemia, then you may receive oxygen to help you breathe easier. There are portable air tanks available that can be arranged if your condition requires external oxygen supply all the time.

If you are unable to breathe properly on your own, then the doctor is likely to insert a breathing tube into your nose or mouth. The tube is connected to a ventilator to help you breathe.

You may also receive oxygen through an oxygen tank or a ventilator to help you breathe easier

If you are in need of prolonged ventilator support, then a surgery will be carried out to create an artificial airway in the windpipe. This is known as a tracheostomy.(4)

Conclusion: What To Expect In The Long Term After An Acute Respiratory Failure?

If you receive the proper treatment at the time you suffer from an acute respiratory failure, then there are good chances of survival. In the long term, once the underlying condition that caused the respiratory failure is treated, you will eventually see improvement in your lung functioning. You may need to undergo pulmonary rehabilitation, which includes a combination of exercise therapy, counseling, and education.

Acute respiratory failure may cause certain long-term damage to the lungs, especially if medical assistance was not administered immediately. It is therefore important to seek emergency medical care if you notice any of the symptoms of acute respiratory failure.


  1. Pontoppidan, H., Geffin, B. and Lowenstein, E., 1972. Acute respiratory failure in the adult. New England Journal of Medicine, 287(14), pp.690-698.
  2. Thoracic.org. 2020. [online] Available at: <https://www.thoracic.org/professionals/clinical-resources/critical-care/clinical-education/mechanical-ventilation/respiratory-failure-mechanical-ventilation.pdf> [Accessed 17 March 2020].
  3. Scala, R. and Heunks, L., 2018. Highlights in acute respiratory failure.
  4. Engoren, M., Arslanian-Engoren, C. and Fenn-Buderer, N., 2004. Hospital and long-term outcome after tracheostomy for respiratory failure. Chest, 125(1), pp.220-227.

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Team PainAssist
Team PainAssist
Written, Edited or Reviewed By: Team PainAssist, Pain Assist Inc. This article does not provide medical advice. See disclaimer
Last Modified On:November 18, 2020

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