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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 arteries in the fingers (digital arteries) with normal blood flow. The inset image shows a cross-section of a digital artery. Figure B shows fingertips that have turned white due to blocked blood flow. Figure C shows narrowed digital arteries, causing blocked blood flow and blue fingertips. The inset image shows a cross-section of a narrowed digital artery.

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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December 19, 2011