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Learning About Respiratory Failure

Lungs in chest showing bronchial tubes in one lung.

What is respiratory failure?

Respiratory failure happens when a person's lungs can't get enough oxygen to the blood. This is a severe problem that may need to be treated in intensive care.

Many organs such as the eyes, the brain, and the heart depend on a steady supply of oxygen they get from the blood. The doctor will try to get enough oxygen to those organs to keep them healthy.

Many things can cause lung failure. They include pneumonia and other serious infections. The doctor will look for the cause of the problem and then treat it if possible.

How is it treated?

To help your lungs get enough oxygen, your doctor may use a few devices. These vary in how much oxygen they give and how they help you breathe. They are:

  • A nasal cannula (say "KAN-yuh-luh"). This is a thin tube with two prongs that fit just inside your nose. Or you may get a face mask.
  • A special face mask that delivers more oxygen. There are different kinds. A face mask with a bag on one end is called a non-rebreather mask.
  • A high-flow nasal cannula. It can warm and wet the oxygen it delivers, so getting high amounts of oxygen feels better.
  • A face mask that gives you oxygen through a BiPAP (bilevel positive airway pressure) machine. This uses different air pressures when you breathe in and out.
  • A ventilator that helps you breathe or that breathes for you. It controls how much air and oxygen flow into your lungs. This machine requires a breathing tube in your windpipe. It can be uncomfortable, so you may get medicine to help you relax or sleep. You also will get fluid through an intravenous (IV) tube.

You will get regular tests to see how much oxygen is in your blood. Tests also can show how well the lungs are working. These tests help your doctor adjust the machines and the oxygen supply.

The doctor will watch you closely.

Care instructions adapted under license by your healthcare professional. If you have questions about a medical condition or this instruction, always ask your healthcare professional. Healthwise, Incorporated disclaims any warranty or liability for your use of this information.