Respiratory Failure

Make an Appointment

Respiratory failure occurs when your lungs have trouble getting oxygen into your blood or carbon dioxide out of it. This can make it hard to breathe and feel really scary. At UVA, you'll find experts who will help ease the fear and the symptoms.

Respiratory Failure Types: Acute & Chronic

From airway blockages and brain damage to spine or chest abnormalities, a number of injuries or diseases can result in breathing problems.

Respiratory failure can occur:

  • As the result of injury or illness, developing quickly, in acute form
  • Due to respiratory illness, developing slowly, over time and possibly requiring lifelong support as a chronic condition

Breathing failure of this kind leads to various symptoms. You may:

  • Have low levels of oxygen in your blood
    • Feel like you’re out of breath
    • Have a bluish color on the skin, lips, fingernails
    • Lose consciousness
    • Have irregular heartbeats
  • Have high levels of carbon dioxide in your blood, which causes:
    • Rapid breathing
    • Confusion
  • A combination of low oxygen levels and high carbon dioxide levels

Acute Respiratory Failure Causes

Acute respiratory failure can result from lung or head trauma caused by:

  • Inhaling smoke
  • Being hit in the chest and ribs
  • Drug or alcohol abuse
  • Having a stroke
  • Sustaining a severe traumatic injury
  • Choking
  • Drowning
  • Collapsed lung
  • Fluid build-up in the lungs

Chronic Respiratory Failure Causes

Most pulmonary disease can increase your risk for chronic respiratory failure. Other conditions that increase your risk of developing chronic respiratory failure include:

  • Stroke
  • Spinal cord injuries
  • Muscular dystrophy
  • Scoliosis
  • Cystic fibrosis
  • Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis
  • Heart failure

Treating Respiratory Failure

Treating acute respiratory failure is fairly straightforward. Intensive ventilation and breathing therapy, along with medicine to treat the root cause of the condition, makes symptoms disappear.

Chronic failure requires long-term, often daily care delivered at home.

Oxygen Therapy

Oxygen therapy involves:

  • A mask or tube under your nose
  • A home oxygen unit or portable tank

Easing Breathing When You Sleep

We can help you decide on a strategy that helps you breathe at night. Options include:

  • The use of a ventilation machine that keeps your airways open, allowing air into your lungs
  • Finding the right sleeping position
  • Trying a special bed

If you’re unable to breathe on your own at all, you’ll need a breathing tube. This requires the use of sedating medications.

Respiratory Failure

Respiratory Failure is a condition when your lungs are having issues with gas exchange and make it difficult to breathe. Dr. Taison Bell goes more into depth about respiratory failure and possible causes. View Transcript.