The human body is made up of many organs and systems and one of the vital ones of the respiratory system. It is made up of many organs, muscles, and tissues all interconnected to help breathe in oxygen and transport it throughout the body and breathe out gases like carbon dioxide. Apart from breathing the respiratory system also helps us to talk, smell, remove waste, protect airways from harmful substances, and more. Many conditions can affect the respiratory system and cause it to fall. When that happens it is important to identify it and either get a pulmonologist online consultation or visit your healthcare provider for more investigation.

What is Respiratory Failure?

Normal healthy adults breathe an average of 12 to 20 times in a minute which can increase to 45 breaths every minute during strenuous activities. The lungs which help in breathing in oxygen and exhaling gases are one of the primary organs of the respiratory system. The trachea or the windpipe which are tubes present in the throat filters the air and transports it into the lungs. The oxygen in the air is then sent to the bloodstream and then the blood carries it to the various parts of the body. The RBCs in the blood collect the gasses from all the cells and send them back to the lungs. There is an exchange of gases in the alveoli and the waste is exhaled through the nose. When you breathe, the oxygen gets into the lungs which are then passed to organs like the heart, brain, etc through blood. Another process it does is to remove excess carbon dioxide through the blood which is another part of breathing.Respiratory failure happens due to malfunctioning of the lungs or heart. Adequate blood oxygen level is not maintained or there is an increase in the carbon dioxide levels. It happens when the blood does not have enough oxygen or has a great quantity of carbon dioxide.

Types of Respiratory Failure

Acute and Chronic Respiratory Failure

Acute Respiratory Failure: Sometimes, this respiratory failure can be acute. When that happens, there is fluid buildup in the air sac. That, in turn, affects the transport of oxygen to the various organs. In an acute respiratory failure, the symptoms appear immediately as there is not enough oxygen. If not treated quickly it can lead to death. Chronic respiratory failure: When respiratory failure is chronic it develops slowly and over time. It happens due to narrowing or damage to the airways that carry oxygen to the lungs. It requires long-term treatment.

Types of Acute Respiratory Failure

There are two types of respiratory failure and are termed acute when the symptoms appear suddenly and need treatment immediately. It can be classified into four types:

  • Type 1 Respiratory failure: Also called hypoxemic respiratory failure happens when there is no proper exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide in the lungs. Type 1 respiratory failure is due to damage or swelling in the lungs. A person having this condition will have very low oxygen levels. Pulmonary edema, COVID 19, severe pneumonia are some of the causes of type 1 respiratory failure.
  • Type 2 respiratory failure: Also called hypoxemia In this condition, the respiratory system is doing the job of removing the waste gases. The lungs which get fresh oxygen in exchange for carbon dioxide do not receive it as the carbon dioxide is not removed. That results in a high accumulation of carbon dioxide. The symptoms of type 2 respiratory failure can be caused due to drug overdose or damage due to smoking. It causes a person to breathe slowly and shallowly. Respiratory pump failure is among the common causes of type 2 respiratory failure.
  • Type 3 respiratory failure: This is referred to as perioperative respiratory failure and occurs when a number of small airways that are part of the lungs get closed. A type 3 respiratory failure unlike type 1 respiratory and type 2 respiratory failure happens due to factors like surgery where there is great pressure on the lungs.
  • Type 4 respiratory failure: It is a condition when the body is unable to maintain blood pressure and provide oxygen. In type 4 respiratory failure, the body goes into a shock and can be due to excessive blood loss due to serious injury or illness.

Respiratory Failure Symptoms and Signs

The respiratory failure symptoms depend on the types of respiratory failure and the following factors:

  • Oxygen and carbon dioxide levels in the blood
  • When the symptoms develop
  • Cause

In a chronic respiratory failure, the symptoms will be mild with shortness of breath or rapid breathing which gets worse over time. On the other hand, acute respiratory failure comes suddenly and is life-threatening. Irrespective of the type of failure, this can damage your lungs and even the other organs in the body so it is essential to get treatment as soon as possible. Respiratory failure symptoms based on oxygen and carbon dioxide levelsHigh carbon dioxide levels in the blood can lead to:

  • Headaches
  • Rapid breathing
  • Blurred vision
  • Confusion

Low levels of oxygen in the blood can lead to symptoms like:

  • A feeling of lack of air
  • Shortness of breath
  • Feeling extremely tired when doing daily chores like climbing stairs, taking a shower, or even changing clothes.
  • Feeling drowsy
  • Discoloration of the lips, toes, and fingers

Respiratory Failure Symptoms in Newborns

Unlike in adults, it is hard to know the symptoms of respiratory failure as they are unable to express it. Some of the noticeable signs are:

  • The nostrils widen with every breath
  • While breathing the muscles between the ribs are pulled.
  • Rapid breathing
  • Grunting and being extremely fussy
  • Lips and skin turn bluish

What are Respiratory Failure Causes?

Now that you know what is respiratory failure and its symptoms, it is important to understand the cause. Respiratory failure causes are due to injury to the lungs, its airways, muscles, bones, nerves, tissues, etc that help you breathe. Any injury or illness that leads to breathing issues causes respiratory failure. When you are unable to breathe properly, the exchange of gases does not happen and then can lead to problems. It can be due to the high concentration of carbon dioxide or low oxygen levels. Some of the respiratory failure causes are:

  • Infections like COVID 19 can cause respiratory distress. This can then lead to pneumonia and respiratory failure.
  • Collapsed airways due to stroke or weakness of the muscles. This leads to difficulty in breathing and getting fresh air into the lungs.
  • Conditions like Asthma which restricts the airways or due to the buildup of mucus it restricts the airways making breathing harder.
  • Fluid in the lungs makes the exchange of gases difficult. Fluid buildup can happen due to lung diseases, pneumonia, ARDS, drowning, injury to the head, heart conditions that restrict blood flow to the lungs.
  • Atelectasis is a condition that causes the lung to collapse. It happens when the lungs become weak, mucus blocks airways, injury to the lung due to accidents, or when the rib is fractured or broken. That makes it difficult to breathe or causes air leakage leading to pneumothorax or lung collapse.
  • A spinal cord injury or muscular dystrophy can lead to a lack of oxygen-rich blood and lead to respiratory failure.
  • Drug overdose can cause the brain to not detect high carbon dioxide buildup and leads to failure in respiration.

While chronic respiratory failure signs and symptoms can be treated at home, acute respiratory failure should be treated quickly as it is life-threatening. Knowing the signs and symptoms and their causes can lead to quick action and diagnosis. Emergency treatment can prevent organ damage and also treat the root cause.

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