Treatment for respiratory failure depends on whether the condition is acute (short-term) or chronic (ongoing) and its severity. Treatment also depends on the condition's underlying cause.
Acute respiratory failure can be a medical emergency. It often is treated in an intensive care unit at a hospital. Chronic respiratory failure often can be treated at home. If chronic respiratory failure is severe, your doctor may recommend treatment in a long-term care center.
One of the main goals of treating respiratory failure is to get oxygen to your lungs and other organs and remove carbon dioxide from your body. Another goal is to treat the underlying cause of the condition.
If you have respiratory failure, you may receive oxygen therapy. Extra oxygen is given through a nasal cannula (two small plastic tubes, or prongs, that are placed in both nostrils) or through a mask that fits over your nose and mouth.
Oxygen also can be given through a tracheostomy (TRA-ke-OS-to-me). This is a surgically made hole that goes through the front of your neck and into your windpipe. A breathing tube, also called a tracheostomy or trach tube, is placed in the hole to help you breathe.
If the oxygen level in your blood doesn't increase, or if you're still having trouble breathing, your doctor may recommend a ventilator. A ventilator is a machine that supports breathing. It blows air—or air with increased amounts of oxygen—into your airways and then your lungs.
Your doctor will adjust the ventilator as needed. This will help your lungs get the right amount of oxygen. It also can prevent the machine's pressure from injuring your lungs. You'll use the ventilator until you can breathe on your own.
Noninvasive positive pressure ventilation (NPPV) and a rocking bed are two methods that can help you breathe better while you sleep. These methods are very useful for people who have chronic respiratory failure.
NPPV is a treatment that uses mild air pressure to keep your airways open while you sleep. You wear a mask or other device that fits over your nose or your nose and mouth. A tube connects the mask to a machine, which blows air into the tube.
CPAP (continuous positive airway pressure) is one type of NPPV. For more information, go to the Health Topics CPAP article. Although the article focuses on CPAP treatment for sleep apnea, it explains how CPAP works.
A rocking bed consists of a mattress on a motorized platform. The mattress gently rocks back and forth. When your head rocks down, the organs in your abdomen and your diaphragm (the main muscle used for breathing) slide up, helping you exhale. When your head rocks up, the organs in your abdomen and your diaphragm slide down, helping you inhale.
You may be given fluids to improve blood flow throughout your body and to provide nutrition. Your doctor will make sure you get the right amount of fluids.
Too much fluid can fill the lungs and make it hard for you to get the oxygen you need. Not enough fluid can limit the flow of oxygen-rich blood to the body's organs.
Fluids usually are given through an intravenous (IV) line inserted in one of your blood vessels.
Your doctor may prescribe medicines to relieve discomfort.
Once your doctor figures out what's causing your respiratory failure, he or she will plan how to treat that disease or condition. Treatments may include medicines, procedures, and other therapies.
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.