First Aid Management for Respiratory Failure

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Respiratory failure is a condition where gas exchange in the lungs is compromised, which can be caused by low levels of oxygen or high levels of carbon dioxide.

Respiratory failure is a condition where gas exchange in the lungs is compromised. There are two types of respiratory failure. In the first scenario, oxygen that enters the lung to be delivered to the rest of the body is not sufficient. It may lead to further problems as the heart, brain and other organs of the body need an adequate amount of oxygen-rich blood to function. This is called hypoxemic respiratory failure, as respiratory failure is caused by low levels of oxygen in the blood. Another type is hypercapnic respiratory failure wherein respiratory failure occurs as a result of high levels of carbon dioxide in the blood. However, both types may also occur at the same time.

To understand respiratory, the process of gas exchange should be understood. Air initially enters through the nose or the mouth and enters the trachea (windpipe), then passes the bronchi, bronchioles and alveoli, air sacs where gas exchange occurs.  Capillaries run through the walls of the alveoli into the blood in the capillaries. This allows the oxygen to effectively pass through the walls of the alveoli and into the blood in the capillaries, while simultaneously moving carbon dioxide from the capillaries into the air sacs.

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Causes of Respiratory Failure

Respiratory failure may either be acute (short term) or chronic (long-term), which can develop suddenly and be a medical emergency or develop gradually and longer-lasting, respectively. These can include carious diseases and conditions, which can include:

  • Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPDs), such as pneumonia
  • Spinal cord injuries
  • Scoliosis
  • Stroke
  • Pulmonary embolism
  • Cystic fibrosis
  • Chest damage to the tissues and bones around the lungs
  • Inhalation of damaging fumes or smokes
  • Drug or alcohol overdose

Signs and Symptoms of Respiratory Failure

Signs and symptoms for respiratory failure may be different in individuals, depending on the underlying cause. The following signs and symptoms may be present:

  • Shortness of breath
  • Quick breathing
  • Hungry for air
  • Cyanosis of the skin, fingernails and lips
  • Confusion
  • Sleepiness
  • Arrhythmias

First Aid Management for Respiratory Failure

The goal for treatment for respiratory failure is to get oxygen to the lungs or reduce levels of carbon dioxide in the body. It may also include treating other underlying causes. If one is suspected of respiratory failure, the following steps may be done:

  • Call for emergency medical assistance immediately.
  • Check for the casualty’s circulation, airway and breathing.
    • To check for pulse, place two fingers on the groove of the neck.
    • To check for any airway obstruction, place two fingers on the forehead and two fingers on the chin and slightly tilt the head.
    • To check for breathing, place own cheek in between the nose and mouth of the casualty and feel for breathing on the cheek. Watch for rise and fall of the chest. Do this for 5-10 seconds.
    • If there is no breathing, give mouth-to-mouth breathing.
      • With the airway open, pinch the nostrils and seal the victim’s mouth with own mouth. Give two rescue breaths.
      • Perform CPR if necessary.
      • Do not leave the victims of respiratory failure alone until professional help arrives.

Disclaimer: This article does not provide medical advice or treatment. The information given should not be used for self-diagnosis. Seek medical attention when necessary. To learn more about to how to manage respiratory failure, enrol in first aid and CPR training with an approved provider near you.


What Is Respiratory Failure?. (2011). National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. Retrieved on October 14, 2013, from

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