Are You At Risk Of Respiratory Failure? Check Symptoms And Causes Here

When the lungs are unable to deliver enough oxygen to the bloodstream, respiratory failure sets in. (Image: Shutterstock)

Breathing problems are a sign of respiratory failure, a dangerous ailment. Find out more about the various types of respiratory failure, including signs and symptoms, causes, and risk factors, here

Respiratory failure is a serious condition characterised by difficulty in breathing. It develops when the lungs are not able to get enough oxygen into the bloodstream. The respiratory system is unable to take out enough carbon dioxide, a waste gas, causing it to build up in the body. Not only can the build-up prevent or slow down oxygen delivery to the body, but it can also damage tissues and organs since it is a toxic byproduct. Read about the types of respiratory failure, their symptoms, causes, and risk factors here.


Respiratory failure can either be acute or chronic. Acute respiratory failure is swift. Since it often happens without much warning, there are hardly any symptoms one can look out for.

When respiratory failure develops slowly over time, it is called chronic respiratory failure. Symptoms include extreme tiredness, shortness of breath, and sleepiness.


Difficulty breathing in and out: This could happen due to collapsed airways, weakness following a stroke, narrowing airways due to mucus build-up, or other reasons.

Fluid in the lungs: The presence of fluid in these organs can be due to acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS), pneumonia, severe head trauma, and drowning among other reasons. This makes it harder for oxygen to pass from the air sacs into the blood and vice versa for carbon dioxide.

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Lung collapse: Lungs may collapse when no air enters in. This can happen due to weak respiratory muscles, broken ribs, or mucus blocking airways.

Breathing muscle issues: These problems may occur after a spinal cord injury or due to a nerve and muscle condition. It could be related to the heart not pumping blood well enough or sepsis too. Weak respiratory muscles can create trouble breathing or lead to lung collapse.

Brain’s control over breathing: Typically, the brain detects increased carbon dioxide in the blood and signals the respiratory system to deepen breathing to expel the gas. However, due to drug overdose or other conditions, oxygen levels fall while carbon dioxide builds up in the body, leading to respiratory failure.

Risk factors

Premature babies with under-developed lungs, pulmonary hypertension, or other such defects and older adults, who may face muscle weakness with age, are more at risk for respiratory failure. Smokers, people who consume excess alcohol, and those using opioids and other drugs are also at risk.

Quitting smoking, substance abuse, and reducing alcohol intake, alongside exercising, managing weight and stress, and getting good quality sleep are some ways one can prevent respiratory failure.

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