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Respiratory Failure

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Summary

Respiratory failure is a condition in which the body cannot get enough oxygen from the lungs into the blood, or remove enough carbon dioxide from the blood.

Causes

Respiratory failure can be caused by:

  • Conditions that affect the muscles or nerves that control breathing (such as muscular dystrophy, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, spinal cord injuries)
  • Chest injuries
  • Spine problems (such as scoliosis)
  • A drug or alcohol overdose
  • Lung diseases or conditions (for example, pneumonia, acute respiratory distress syndrome, cystic fibrosis)
  • Lung injury from inhaling smoke or harmful fumes

Types

There are two types of respiratory failure:

  • Chronic respiratory failure, which happens gradually as a result of a long-standing disease or condition
  • Acute respiratory failure, which happens quickly
Symptoms

Symptoms

Symptoms of respiratory failure may include:

  • Difficulty breathing
  • Rapid breathing
  • Bluish colored skin, lips and fingernails (called cyanosis)
  • Confusion
Tests and Diagnosis

Tests and Diagnosis

The following are tests that are used to diagnose respiratory failure. Your child’s doctor may use a combination of these:

  • Medical history and physical exam
  • Arterial blood gas test: a blood test that measures the oxygen and carbon dioxide levels in the blood
  • Pulse oximetry: a noninvasive test that uses a small sensor attached to the finger or ear to estimate how much oxygen is in the blood
  • Chest X-ray
Treatments

Treatments

Respiratory failure is a critical condition that requires constant oversight by a team of specially-trained caregivers. The critical care physicians at Children’s are international leaders in pediatric critical care. They work closely with nurses, respiratory therapists and other team members to ensure that your child gets whatever is needed at a moment's notice.

Standard respiratory failure treatments

The following are the customary treatments for respiratory failure. Your child’s doctor may use a combination of these treatment methods:

  • Oxygen therapy, to increase the amount of oxygen in the bloodstream
  • Mechanical ventilation, to help with breathing
  • Noninvasive positive pressure ventilation, to keep the airways open during sleep
  • Tracheostomy to create an opening in the trachea, providing an airway
  • IV fluids, to improve blood flow and provide nutrition
  • Treatment of the condition that caused the respiratory failure

Advanced respiratory failure treatments

The critical care team at Children’s is prepared to treat children with any critical care diagnosis or crisis, including respiratory failure. At Children’s, we provide patient-centered care, which means we put your child’s interests at the forefront. We have multiple resources that are designed to not only meet the needs of your child, but also your entire family. Some of those resources include:

  • Child Life services
  • Social work
  • Pastoral care
  • Translation services
  • Nutrition services

Immediate family is welcome 24 hours a day and limited sleeping accommodations are provided.

Although our main focus has always been high-quality patient care, many of our medical staff members also conduct research into new treatment methods and technologies. This allows Children’s to have access to new therapies years before they are available at other institutions. Our medical staff also wrote one of the major textbooks in the field of pediatric critical care, which helped to define how pediatric critical care is provided nationally.

Resources

Resources

For more information on respiratory failure, refer to the following resources:

FAQs

FAQs

What is respiratory failure?

Respiratory failure is a condition in which the body cannot get enough oxygen from the lungs into the blood, or remove enough carbon dioxide from the blood.

What causes respiratory failure?

Respiratory failure can be caused by conditions that affect the muscles or nerves that control breathing; by chest injuries, spine problems, drug or alcohol overdoses, lung diseases or conditions, or because of lung injury from inhaling smoke or harmful fumes.

Is there more than one type of respiratory failure?

There are two types of respiratory failure: chronic respiratory failure, which happens gradually, and acute respiratory failure, which occurs rapidly.

How do I know if my child has respiratory failure?

If your child has symptoms of respiratory failure, you should have her evaluated by a physician. Symptoms of respiratory failure may include difficulty breathing; rapid breathing; bluish colored skin, lips and fingernails (called cyanosis); and confusion.

What types of tests are used to diagnose respiratory failure?

Tests used to diagnose respiratory failure include blood tests, pulse oximetry (which measures oxygen levels in the blood) and chest X-rays.

How is respiratory failure treated?

Treatments for respiratory failure may include oxygen therapy, mechanical ventilation, noninvasive positive pressure ventilation, tracheostomy, IV fluids and treating the underlying cause of the respiratory failure.

Care team

Care team

Physician Contacts

Hospital Contacts

  • Lori Allen, RN, CCRN
  • Karen Cavazos, RN, MBA, CNAA, BC

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