Respiratory failure

What is respiratory failure, and what causes it?

Respiratory failure is characterised by the inability of the lungs to exchange gases. This means that the lungs are unable to remove carbon dioxide from the body or provide the body with oxygen-rich blood. Acute respiratory failure is a serious illness as oxygen cannot reach the heart, brain, or the rest of the body.

Your lungs take in oxygen when you breathe. The oxygen enters your bloodstream and travels to your organs. Your heart and brain, for example, rely on this oxygen-rich blood to function correctly. Removing carbon dioxide from the blood and breathing it out is another aspect of breathing. Carbon dioxide poisoning can injure your organs if you have too much in your blood.

Respiratory failure has many possible causes, including obstruction, stroke or acute respiratory distress syndrome. Acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS) is a serious condition characterised by low oxygen in the blood due to pneumonia, severe trauma, brain injury, or lung injuries caused by inhalation of smoke or chemical products. Those with chronic respiratory conditions such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) or asthma also have a higher risk of developing respiratory failure.

What are the signs of respiratory failure?

When the levels of carbon dioxide and oxygen in your blood are out of balance, the following symptoms may be experienced:

  • Rapid breathing or inability to breath
  • Confusion
  • Bluish colouration of the skin, fingertips, or lips
  • Restlessness and anxiety
  • Fatigue
  • Racing or irregular heartbeat
  • Increased perspiration

What does treatment involve?

Depending on the underlying cause of respiratory failure, treatment may vary. Various medications may be administered in these cases to make breathing more accessible, and an oxygen tank may be set up to allow you to breathe better. In critical or emergency cases where breathing is severely impaired, Dr Mothilal may provide non-invasive or invasive ventilation techniques. As acute respiratory failure can cause long-term damage to your lungs, you may require pulmonary rehabilitation long-term to strengthen your lung functioning and capability.

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Christiaan Barnard Memorial Hospital

Suite 1613, 16th floor, Netcare Christiaan Barnard Memorial Hospital, Cnr DF Malan Street and Rua Bartholemeu Dias Plain, Foreshore, Cape Town, 8001