The symptoms of respiratory failure may vary with the underlying cause and the level of oxygen and carbon dioxide in the blood. Here is a brief explanation about the condition and its symptoms.
Respiration is a bodily function that involves inhalation and exhalation. Inside the lungs, oxygen in the inhaled air is absorbed into the blood, and carbon dioxide in the blood is released through exhalation. Respiratory failure happens when the function of gaseous exchange gets impaired. The respiratory system may fail to supply enough oxygen and/or eliminate carbon dioxide effectively. So the condition is characterized by low levels of oxygen in the blood or high levels of carbon dioxide, or both.
Impairment of gaseous exchange may happen in case of damage to the lungs or other parts of the respiratory system. Other causes include deformities of the chest wall, weakness of the respiratory muscles (can be caused by conditions like myasthenia and muscular dystrophy), depression of the respiratory center in the brain (due to brain trauma, use of sedatives or illicit drugs, etc.). So, various medical conditions, trauma, exposure to harmful smoke or fumes, etc., are some of the common causes for respiratory failure. Even an impaired blood flow in the lungs, due to pulmonary embolism may cause respiratory failure.
Types: Respiratory failure is classified into two types – hypoxaemic (type I) and hypercapnic (type II). While type I respiratory failure is characterized by a low oxygen level, along with a low or normal carbon dioxide level; type II involves low oxygen and high carbon dioxide levels. Respiratory failure can be acute or chronic. Acute condition develops all of a sudden, within a few minutes or hours. Chronic respiratory failure is a progressive condition that worsens over time.
Symptoms of respiratory failure may vary with the type, severity, the underlying cause, and the level of oxygen and carbon dioxide in the blood.
- Shortness of breath and bluish discoloration of the skin, lips, and nailsindicate a low level of oxygen in the blood.
- Drowsiness and confusion indicate a low oxygen level, along with a high level of carbon dioxide.
- Rapid breathing may also indicate a high level of carbon dioxide, which the body tries to eliminate.
- Drowsiness, loss of consciousness, and arrhythmias indicate malfunctioning of the heart and brain, as the body fails to eliminate carbon dioxide. The condition may lead to death.
- If the person is unconscious, weak, or intoxicated, he/she may enter a state of coma, without showing any symptom.
- If respiration gets impaired due to airway obstruction caused by a trapped foreign object, the person may gasp for breath.
- In case of acute respiratory distress syndrome, the person may develop severe shortness of breath within a few hours.
The first line of treatment is administration of supplemental oxygen. In some people, intake of a large amount of oxygen may lead to a further increase in the carbon dioxide level. In such cases, a regulated supply of oxygen is given. Apart from that, medications are administered for treating the underlying disorders. For example, bronchodilators are used to control airway obstruction in asthma patients. Antibiotics are used for treating bacterial infection of the lungs. Respiratory support is required in some people, who fail to respond to these treatments.
Disclaimer: This article is for informational purposes only, and should not be used as a replacement for expert medical advice. Visiting your physician is the safest way to diagnose and treat any health condition.