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What Causes Respiratory Failure?

Diseases and conditions that impair breathing can cause respiratory failure. These disorders may affect the muscles, nerves, bones, or tissues that support breathing, or they may affect the lungs directly.

When breathing is impaired, your lungs can't easily move oxygen into your blood and remove carbon dioxide from your blood (gas exchange). This can cause a low oxygen level or high carbon dioxide level, or both, in your blood.

Respiratory failure can occur as a result of:

  • Conditions that affect the nerves and muscles that control breathing. Examples include muscular dystrophy, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), spinal cord injuries, and stroke.
  • Damage to the tissues and ribs around the lungs. An injury to the chest can cause this damage.
  • Problems with the spine, such as scoliosis (a curve in the spine). This condition can affect the bones and muscles used for breathing.
  • Drug or alcohol overdose. An overdose affects the area of the brain that controls breathing. During an overdose, breathing becomes slow and shallow.
  • Lung diseases and conditions, such as COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease), pneumonia, ARDS (acute respiratory distress syndrome), pulmonary embolism, and cystic fibrosis. These diseases and conditions can affect the flow of air and blood into and out of your lungs. ARDS and pneumonia affect gas exchange in the air sacs.
  • Acute lung injuries. For example, inhaling harmful fumes or smoke can injure your lungs.

Normal Lungs and Conditions Causing Respiratory Failure

Figure A shows the location of the lungs, airways, diaphragm, rib cage, pulmonary arteries, brain, and spinal cord in the body. Figure B shows the major conditions that cause respiratory failure.

Figure A shows the location of the lungs, airways, diaphragm, rib cage, pulmonary arteries, brain, and spinal cord in the body. Figure B shows the major conditions that cause respiratory failure.

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Respiratory Failure Clinical Trials

Clinical trials are research studies that explore whether a medical strategy, treatment, or device is safe and effective for humans. To find clinical trials that are currently underway for Respiratory Failure, visit www.clinicaltrials.gov.

 
December 19, 2011 Last Updated Icon

The NHLBI updates Health Topics articles on a biennial cycle based on a thorough review of research findings and new literature. The articles also are updated as needed if important new research is published. The date on each Health Topics article reflects when the content was originally posted or last revised.