Respiratory arrest is a medical emergency characterized by a complete cessation of breathing. Within minutes, the patient will usually go into cardiac arrest, if he or she does not do so immediately when going into respiratory arrest. If normal gas exchange in the lungs stops for more than five minutes, irreversible damage will be done to the brain, and if the patient is successfully revived, she or he could experience permanent neurological impairments.
There are a number of reasons why someone can go into respiratory arrest. One reason is airway obstruction, which may occur in the upper or lower airway and can be caused by things such as allergic reactions, blood or mucus in the airways, or a foreign object in the airway. Trauma can also lead to respiratory arrest, as can neurological impairments and muscular impairments. Another reason is drug overdose, which slows the respiratory system and heart rate and can cause someone to stop breathing entirely.
The signs of respiratory arrest are very easy to identify. The patient often appears extremely agitated, is unable to speak, and may gesture in a way which is intended to indicate that she or he is having trouble breathing. Prior to respiratory arrest, breathing may be labored or erratic, and the patient may be confused or exhibit other symptoms of impairment. Very quickly, the patient usually becomes unconscious and cyanotic, with the nail beds, lips, and extremities turning blue.
The immediate treatment for respiratory arrest is artificial ventilation to get oxygen into the patient. This may come in the form of cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) which is also designed to restart the heart. Once the patient is breathing again, steps can be taken to find out why the patient went into arrest, and to treat the underlying cause. In some cases, a patient may require long term artificial ventilation because she or he cannot breathe independently.
The severity of this medical emergency cannot be understated. If someone stops breathing, artificial ventilation should be provided immediately through rescue breathing while emergency services are called. When calling to report respiratory or cardiac arrest, the caller should quickly state the location and make it clear that the patient is not breathing. The caller will usually be asked to stay on the line until the ambulance arrives, and, if necessary, will be coached through rescue breathing, CPR, and other steps which can be taken to improve the patient's chances of survival in the time it will take for emergency services to arrive.