Respiratory failure occurs when your lungs are unable to pass enough oxygen through to your blood, or when they fail to remove carbon dioxide from the blood, impairing the functionality of your body’s organs. Treatment depends on whether the condition is short-term (acute) or ongoing (chronic) and its severity.
Pulmonologists and thoracic surgeons who specialize in respiratory failure at the Brigham and Women’s Hospital (BWH) Lung Center provide comprehensive, specialized care for patients experiencing respiratory failure. Their expertise and collaboration with other specialists throughout BWH provides patients with a highly-informed diagnosis and a cohesive treatment plan.
The majority of cases of respiratory failure fall under one of the following two categories:
Acute respiratory failure is a short-term condition that is treated as a medical emergency, while chronic respiratory failure develops over time and requires long-term treatment.
People who have conditions that affect the muscles, bones, nerves or tissues involved in breathing, or have lung diseases, are at risk for respiratory failure. Mortality rates increase with age and in the presence of additional diseases or disorders.
You may be at risk for respiratory failure if you:
Conditions and diseases that affect your breathing can cause respiratory failure. Some include:
The symptoms of respiratory failure depend on its underlying cause and the levels of carbon dioxide and oxygen in the blood. Some symptoms include:
Your physician will diagnose respiratory failure based on a careful review your medical history, a full physical examination and additional test results, including:
Once respiratory failure is diagnosed, your physician will look to determine its underlying cause to develop a treatment plan.
Treatment for respiratory failure involves addressing any underlying conditions you may have, and depends upon whether your respiratory failure is acute (short-term) or chronic (ongoing). Acute respiratory failure typically requires immediate hospitalization in an intensive care unit. Chronic respiratory failure can often be treated at home, depending on its severity and underlying cause.
Treatment plans may include medication to alleviate discomfort, oxygen therapy, ventilator support or surgery.
You may receive oxygen therapy through a nasal cannula or a mask that covers your nose and mouth.
If the oxygen levels in your blood do not improve, your physician may recommend a ventilator. This machine supports breathing to help your body get an ample amount of oxygen until you are able to breathe on your own. Types of ventilator support include:
Surgery may be necessary depending on the severity of your respiratory failure and its underlying cause. Possible surgical interventions include:
A multidisciplinary team will work with you every step of the way, from diagnostics through evaluation, to create a cohesive and comprehensive treatment plan. Our unique approach features same day consultations with multiple specialists and fosters seamless, expert care. Your medical condition will be closely monitored and managed to promote optimal lung functioning and an improved quality of life.
If you require surgery, you will meet with your health care team first for pre-operative information and tests. On the day of your surgery, you will receive care from surgeons, anesthesiologists and nurses who specialize in thoracic surgery and interventional pulmonary procedures. After surgery, you will recover in our designated thoracic post-surgical care unit where you will receive comprehensive care by an experienced surgical and nursing staff.
Respiratory failure patients benefit from the wide range of specialists at The Lung Center, including thoracic surgeons, pulmonologists and imaging experts. This collaboration ensures comprehensive diagnosis and targeted treatment for patients.
Any recommended surgery or procedure will be performed by an experienced, board-certified surgeon, in collaboration with the treatment team including nurses and physician assistants, all of whom specialize in caring for patients with respiratory failure.
Learn more about topics related to respiratory failure in our health library.
Visit the Kessler Health Education Library in the Bretholtz Center for Patients and Families to access computers and knowledgeable staff.
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