What are Respiratory Emergencies?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 17 December 2018
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Respiratory emergencies are medical emergencies characterized by difficulty breathing or an inability to breathe at all. Such emergencies can become fatal if they are not addressed properly and promptly. If someone starts to show signs of respiratory distress, medical help should be obtained immediately. In the case of patients with chronic conditions which cause difficulty breathing, people should learn the difference between what is ordinary for the patient and what is a sign of a true emergency. For example, some people with asthma are naturally wheezy and it is not a cause for concern, while extremely labored breathing is a sign that the patient is in distress.

In a respiratory emergency, a patient may take frequent shallow breaths, irregular breaths, or very slow breaths. In some cases, the patient stops breathing at all. Respiratory emergencies are commonly accompanied with pale, cold, clammy skin, and the heart may stop beating or become irregular. The patient is also usually extremely agitated, which can add to the severity of the emergency because the patient will use more oxygen in a panic.


Heart failure, asthma, pneumonia, bronchitis, chronic pulmonary obstruction disorder, croup, inflammation of the epiglottis, and the common cold are all conditions associated with respiratory emergencies. In patients with chronic conditions, medications may be used in an attempt to keep the airway open, and if the airway starts to close, prompt intervention may be needed. People can also experience acute reactions to allergens and drugs which lead to respiratory distress, and when objects become lodged in the throat, they can cause respiratory emergencies.

Some other causes of respiratory emergencies include medical problems such as pneumothorax, in which air fills the pleural space which surrounds the lungs, and pleural effusion, in which the pleural space becomes filled with fluid. Both of these conditions can happen as a result of trauma, and pleural effusion may occur as a consequence of long term chronic disease.

Patients usually notice when they experience respiratory emergencies. They may attempt to speak and often gesture to indicate that they are having trouble breathing. It can be very frightening to be unable to breathe, and people providing care should try to keep the patient as calm as possible by nothing that help is coming. Remaining in an agitated state can create complications for the patient. If a patient stops breathing altogether, rescue breathing should be initiated to reduce the risk of brain damage and increase the patient's chance of survival. Before administering rescue breaths, the airway should always be checked and swept for signs of objects which may be causing obstructions.


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