Trauma Survivors Network - provided by ATS

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Respiratory Failure

Respiratory failure is any condition that affects the ability to breath. It can result in failure of the lungs to function correctly.

Causes and Symptoms

Several different abnormalities of breathing function can cause respiratory failure. The major categories, with specific examples of each, are: 

  • Blockage of the airways
  • Weak breathing
  • Muscle weakness
  • Severe pneumonia or fluid in the lungs
  • Injury of the chest


Blood test, a chest x-ray and a physical exam are necessary for diagnosis. 


Nearly all patients are given oxygen as the first treatment. Then the underlying cause of respiratory failure must be treated. For example, antibiotics are used to fight a lung infection, or for an asthmatic patient, a drug to open up the airways is commonly prescribed.

A patient whose breathing remains very poor will require a breathing machine to help in breathing.

The respiratory therapist has a number of methods available to help patients overcome respiratory failure. These methods include: suctioning of the lungs, coughing and breathing exercises. One useful method of deep breathing is the use of an incentive spirometer. The patient is told to suck on a tube attached to a clear plastic hosing containing a ball so as to keep the ball lifted. This is done several times throughout the day.

Source Citation: "Respiratory failure." David A. Cramer, MD. The Gale Encyclopedia of Medicine. Second Edition. Jacqueline L. Longe, Editor. 5 vols. Farmington Hills, MI: Gale Group, 2001.