Chronic and Acute Respiratory Failure

Respiratory failure is a condition characterised by abnormal levels of oxygen and carbon dioxide in the blood due to inadequate gas exchange in the lungs.


Any disease, condition or accident that impairs breathing, can cause respiratory failure. These include:

  • Conditions affecting the nerves and muscles that control breathing, such as muscular dystrophy, spinal cord injuries, stroke and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS)
  • Injuries to the chest or lungs or problems with the spine, such as scoliosis (a curve in the spine)
  • Lung conditions, such as COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease), ARDS (acute respiratory distress syndrome), pulmonary embolism, pneumonia and cystic fibrosis.


Low levels of oxygen can cause symptoms such shortness of breath, fatigue, irregular heartbeats, a bluish colour on the skin, lips and fingernails and even loss of consciousness.

A high level of carbon dioxide can cause rapid breathing and confusion.


In order to check the oxygen and carbon dioxide levels in your blood, your doctor may carry out one of two tests: a pulse oximetry, where a small sensor is attached to your finger or ear, which uses light to detect how much oxygen is in the blood, or an arterial blood gas test, which involves a blood sample being taken and sent to a laboratory for further analysis.

You may also need to have a chest X-ray to determine the underlying cause of respiratory failure, as well as an ECG (electrocardiogram) if arrhthymia is suspected as a result of respiratory failure.


Chronic (long-term) respiratory failure can be treated at home, or if the symptoms are severe, in a long-term care centre.

Acute respiratory failure, on the other hand, is often classed as a medical emergency, which requires treatment in intensive care.

Treatment involves providing much-needed oxygen to the lungs and other organs, as well as removing carbon dioxide from the body. It will also involve treating the underlying cause of the condition.