What is Acute Respiratory Failure?

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  • Written By: D. Jeffress
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 27 January 2020
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Acute respiratory failure is an emergency medical condition in which there is an extremely low oxygen content or an extremely high carbon dioxide content in an individual's blood. The lungs can become unable to replenish oxygen supplies because of an airway obstruction or the presence of excessive fluids. This condition is usually fatal if an individual does not receive immediate medical services. Doctors or emergency medical technicians will try to remove the obstruction, supply oxygen, and determine any underlying causes in order to provide additional treatment.

The sudden onset of acute respiratory failure may occur due to an asthma attack, smoke inhalation, choking, or drowning, among other causes of airway obstruction. A particularly dangerous form of respiratory failure occurs in patients with acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS), which involves severe lung tissue inflammation and the buildup of fluid the lungs. ARDS is usually seen with serious trauma, bacterial infections, or drug overdoses.

A person experiencing acute respiratory failure due to airway obstruction generally appears panicked as he or she gasps for breath. The skin often turns blue as oxygen supplies are depleted. A drowning person may have very blue skin, lose consciousness, and exhibit very shallow breathing. The onset of ARDS is usually accompanied by shortness of breath, confusion, and extreme tiredness. An individual can suffer from permanent organ and brain damage if treatment is not administered immediately.


The primary objective when treating a person with acute respiratory failure is identifying the cause. A victim with a foreign object in his or her throat may need to receive the Heimlich maneuver or a similar procedure to dislodge the obstruction. Cardiopulmonary resuscitation is often necessary for people who have been submerged in water or engulfed in smoke for extended periods of time. Oxygen is usually administered as soon as possible in order to stabilize the blood supply, and bronchodilators are given to people who have had asthma attacks in order to reopen the airways.

An individual who is experiencing ARDS typically requires immediate oxygen administered with a breathing machine to cleanse the lungs and restore blood supply to vital organs. Once the lungs are free from fluid, doctors can determine and treat the underlying cause of ARDS. Antibiotics may be given orally or intravenously if the cause is a bacterial infection, and detoxification measures are taken in the event of an overdose. With prompt medical attention, an individual suffering from acute respiratory failure may be able to regain breathing and full consciousness in a matter of minutes.


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Post 3

My husband died last week. On the death certificate it listed the primary cause as Acute Respiratory Failure and the second cause as Pulmonary Fibrosis. I think that he was in his last stages of this terrible disease.

Post 1

My daughter recently passed away. On the death certificate it listed as primarily cause Acute Respiratory failure and the second cause as Inter Cerebral Hemorrhage. How are they related?

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