What is acute respiratory failure?

Respiratory failure occurs when there is an impairment of gas exchanges in your body. This means that your lungs are unable to get enough oxygen to your blood, when they are unable to remove enough carbon dioxide from your blood, or both. "Enough" oxygen is defined as 6.7 kPa (kilopascals, a unit of pressure) or more; and "enough" carbon dioxide removed is defined as 6.7 kPa or less. A pulse oxymetry (amount of oxygenation in the blood) below 90 percent is considered critical. Acute respiratory failure is when respiratory failure comes on suddenly and lasts for a short time, as opposed to chronic respiratory failure, which is an ongoing condition.

Respiratory failure can be caused by conditions that affect your breathing, such as spinal injuries that damage the nerves controlling your breathing or diseases, such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, which prevents enough air from moving through your airways.


Symptoms of respiratory failure include rapid breathing, shortness of breath, air hunger (feeling like you can't get as much air as you need) and in severe cases, blue skin, lips and fingernails, confusion and drowsiness.

In order to treat respiratory failure, doctors must get enough oxygen to your organs, remove the carbon dioxide from your body, and treat whatever is causing the condition. Oxygen therapy is helpful in patients who are not getting enough oxygen, but it will not resolve the problem of a patient whose body is not effectively removing carbon dioxide. Either way, you will probably need to be admitted to an intensive care unit for treatment because acute respiratory failure is considered a medical emergency.

Your prognosis will depend on a number of factors; namely, the severity of the underlying cause, how quickly you began treatment and your general health situation.