Acute Respiratory Failure
Also known as acute respiratory distress syndrome, acute respiratory failure is a life-threatening condition that occurs when fluid leaks from small blood vessels in the lungs and builds up in the air sacs (alveoli). Because the fluid prevents the lungs from fully filling with air, insufficient oxygen reaches the bloodstream and vital organs throughout the body are deprived of the oxygen they need to properly function.
What causes acute respiratory failure?
Acute respiratory failure typically results from a critical illness or severe injury. The most common cause is sepsis, a widespread bloodstream infection. Other medical conditions and injuries that can lead to acute respiratory failure include:
- Inhalation of high concentrations of smoke or harmful chemical fumes
- Aspiration of vomit
- A near-drowning episode
- Severe pneumonia
- A chest injury that damages the lungs
- A head injury that damages the portion of the brain that controls breathing
- Severe COVID-19
- Severe burns
What are the signs of acute lung failure?
The main symptom of acute respiratory failure is severe shortness of breath, which usually develops within a few hours of the precipitating illness or injury. Other symptoms can include:
- Rapid and labored breathing
- Low blood pressure
- Mental confusion
- Overwhelming fatigue
How is acute respiratory failure diagnosed?
Acute respiratory failure is usually diagnosed based on the results of a physical exam, chest X-ray or CT scan and lab test that measures blood oxygen levels. Because certain heart conditions can produce similar symptoms, a physician may also order an echocardiogram and an electrocardiogram to evaluate the structure, function and electrical activity of the heart.
How is acute respiratory failure treated?
The immediate goal of treatment is to quickly increase blood oxygen levels. This may be accomplished with:
- Supplemental oxygen delivered through a mask
- A mechanical ventilator that pushes air into the lungs and forces some fluid out of the alveoli
During acute respiratory failure treatment, intravenous fluid intake must be precisely managed. Too much fluid can increase the fluid buildup in the lungs; too little fluid can strain the heart and potentially lead to shock.
Additionally, treatment may involve medications to:
- Prevent and treat infection
- Relieve pain
- Prevent blood clots
- Minimize gastric reflux
Receive personalized care at TGH
Acute respiratory failure is a serious condition that requires specialized care. For this reason, many patients turn to TGH’s Advanced Lung Disease and Transplant Center within our Transplant Institute, which features a highly focused, multidisciplinary team of medical professionals. To request an appointment with a specialist in our Advanced Lung Disease and Transplant Center, contact us at 800-505-7769.