What is Respiratory Support?

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  • Written By: Vanessa Harvey
  • Edited By: A. Joseph
  • Last Modified Date: 18 January 2020
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Respiratory support is a term that refers to the various medical procedures and equipment used by respiratory care providers and their patients to treat a chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) such as asthma, emphysema and black lung. It also refers to the emergency respiratory care provided for patients who are in respiratory distress or arrest, which might or might not be related to COPD. A ventilator, continuous positive airway pressure device (CPAP), a flow-restricted oxygen-powered ventilation device (FROPVD), a pocket face mask and a bag-valve mask are among the equipment used to provide respiratory support.

A ventilator breathes for the patient and is programmed to handle the timing and rate of the vital functions of inhalation, also called inspiration, and exhalation, also called expiration. These machines are used in hospitals as well as in private homes and other facilities. People with sleep apnea, which can sometimes manifest as behavioral problems in young children, often are prescribed a CPAP device, which provides continuous pressure to keep the patient's airway open.


Oxygen therapy is a very common form of respiratory support performed by a healthcare provider such as an emergency room nurse, respiratory specialist, physician's assistant or paramedic. The drug typically is delivered via a non-rebreather mask or nasal cannula to treat or help prevent hypoxia, a state of insufficient oxygen in the body's tissues. It is important to understand the difference between the terms "respiratory distress," "respiratory failure," and "respiratory arrest" to better understand the extreme importance placed on the subject of respiratory support. Respiratory distress simply is shortness of breath, but depending on the health of a person or whether he or she has suffered trauma or distress, distress can lead to failure. When a person's oxygen intake is not sufficient to support life, he or she is said to be in respiratory failure, which quickly leads to respiratory arrest, the complete cessation of breathing.

Cardiac arrest swiftly follows respiratory arrest, which is why emergency medicine places such a strong emphasis on respiratory support. Assisted ventilation, also known as positive pressure ventilation, is the rescue breathing performed by a device or by the rescuer for a person who is in respiratory failure or arrest. For example, the pocket face mask and the bag valve mask, the FROPVD and the automatic transport ventilator are among the devices that help to protect rescuers from disease by replacing the mouth-to-mouth rescue breathing that can be carried out alone or in conjunction with cardiopulmonary resuscitation.


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