Acute respiratory failure arises if fluid builds up in the air sacs in the lungs. Once this occurs, the lungs could not release oxygen into the blood. Consequently, the organs could not receive enough oxygenated blood to function. Acute respiratory failure can also develop if the lungs could not eliminate carbon dioxide from the blood.
The condition occurs once the capillaries surrounding the air sacs could not correctly exchange carbon dioxide for oxygen. If an individual has acute respiratory failure, he/she has immediate signs due to the inadequate oxygen in the body. In most instances, this can lead to death if not promptly treated.
What are the signs?
The indications of acute respiratory failure are based on the underlying cause and amount of carbon dioxide and oxygen present in the blood.
If the level of carbon dioxide is elevated, it can cause:
- Rapid breathing
If the level of oxygen is low, the following might arise:
- Difficulty breathing
- Bluish discoloration in the fingertips, skin or lips
Individuals with acute failure of the lungs along with low level of oxygen might experience the following:
- Loss of consciousness
- Racing heart rate
- Rapid and shallow breathing
- Erratic heartbeats or arrhythmias
- Profuse sweating
What are the causes?
There are various causes of acute respiratory failure that you should be familiar with:
- Obstruction – if a foreign object embeds in the throat, there is difficulty getting sufficient oxygen into the lungs. Hindrance can also occur among those with asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) if a flare-up results to the constriction of the airways.
- Injuries – any form of trauma that compromises the respiratory tract can significantly affect the amount of oxygen in the blood
- Acute respiratory distress syndrome – this is a serious ailment defined by low amount of oxygen in the blood.
- Chemical inhalation – breathing in toxic chemicals, fumes or smoke can lead to acute respiratory failure.
- Alcohol or drug abuse – overdosing on alcoholic beverages or drugs can impair the brain function and disrupt with ability to inhale or exhale.
- Stroke – this occurs if there is tissue death or damage to the brain.
- Infection – this is a usual cause of respiratory distress.
Management of acute respiratory failure
The treatment is usually based on any underlying ailments present. The doctor will manage the respiratory failure using various options such as:
- Pain medications or other drugs to promote better breathing.
- If the individual can adequately breathe on his/her own and the hypoxemia is mild, oxygen can be given from an oxygen tank. A portable air tank is also available if the condition necessitates one.
- In case the individual could not sufficiently breathe on his/her own, the doctor might insert a breathing tube into the nose or mouth and connected to a ventilator to assist with breathing.
- If the individual requires prolonged support under a ventilator, tracheostomy is performed which involves the creation of an artificial airway.
Quick Note / Disclaimer
The material posted on this page on acute respiratory failure is for learning and educational purposes only. To learn how the condition is managed, register for a first aid and CPR course with Red Deer First Aid.