Signs of acute respiratory failure include dizziness, shortness of breath, and a bluish discoloration of your extremities. It can be life threatening and requires immediate medical care.

Acute respiratory failure occurs when your lungs cannot release enough oxygen into your blood, which prevents your organs from properly functioning. It also occurs if your lungs cannot remove carbon dioxide from your blood.

Respiratory failure happens when the capillaries, or tiny blood vessels surrounding your air sacs, cannot properly exchange carbon dioxide and/or oxygen.

There are two types of respiratory failure: acute and chronic.

Acute respiratory failure happens suddenly. It occurs due to a disease or injury that interferes with the ability of the lungs to deliver oxygen or remove carbon dioxide. In most cases, acute respiratory failure can be fatal if not treated quickly.

Chronic respiratory failure has multiple causes. It can occur when the airways narrow or become damaged over time. It can also occur with conditions that cause the respiratory muscles to weaken over time. Some causes of chronic respiratory failure include:

There are two types of acute and chronic respiratory failure: hypoxemic and hypercapnic. Both conditions can trigger serious complications, and they often occur together.

Hypoxemic respiratory failure, or hypoxemia, occurs when you do not have enough oxygen in your blood.

Hypercapnic respiratory failure, or hypercapnia, happens when there is too much carbon dioxide in your blood.

The symptoms of acute respiratory failure depend on its underlying cause. Symptoms can also differ by the amount of oxygen and carbon dioxide in your blood.

People with low oxygen may experience:

  • shortness of breath
  • a bluish coloration on lips, fingertips, or toes
  • drowsiness
  • difficulty performing routine activities, such as dressing or climbing stairs, due to extreme tiredness

People with high carbon dioxide levels may experience:

  • rapid breathing
  • confusion
  • blurred vision
  • headaches

Acute respiratory failure has several causes:


When something lodges in your throat, you may have trouble getting enough oxygen into your lungs. Obstruction can also occur in people with COPD or asthma when an exacerbation causes the airways to narrow.


An injury that impairs or compromises your respiratory system can negatively affect the amount of oxygen or carbon dioxide in your blood.

For instance, a spinal cord or brain injury can immediately affect your breathing. If the brain cannot relay messages to the lungs, the lungs may not function properly.

Rib or chest injuries can also affect your breathing.

Acute respiratory distress syndrome

Acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS) is a serious condition that causes fluid to build up in your lungs. It results in low oxygen in the blood. People who develop ARDS typically have an underlying health condition, such as:

Drug or alcohol use

Experiencing a drug overdose or drinking too much alcohol can also impair brain function and hinder breathing.

Chemical inhalation

Inhaling toxic chemicals, smoke, or fumes can cause acute respiratory failure. These chemicals may injure or damage lung tissue, including the air sacs and capillaries.


A stroke happens when something disrupts blood flow to the brain. Strokes often affect only one side of the brain.

Although strokes present with some warning signs, such as slurred speech or confusion, they typically occur suddenly. If you have a stroke, you can lose the ability to breathe.


Infections can cause respiratory distress. Pneumonia, in particular, may cause respiratory failure, even without ARDS.

You may be at risk for acute respiratory failure if you:

  • smoke tobacco products
  • drink alcohol excessively
  • have a family history of respiratory disease or conditions
  • have an injury to the spine, brain, or chest
  • have a compromised immune system
  • have chronic respiratory conditions, such as lung cancer, COPD, or asthma

Acute respiratory failure requires immediate medical attention. You may require supplemental oxygen to help you breathe and prevent organ damage.

When you’re in stable condition, a doctor may diagnose you by:

Because acute respiratory failure means your organs are not receiving the oxygen-rich blood they need to function, complications can involve multiple organ systems. Acute respiratory failure can often be fatal.

Pulmonary complications, or those affecting the lungs, can include:

Other complications can include:

Doctors must treat acute respiratory failure quickly, as it can be life threatening. Emergency medical treatment can help you breathe and prevent further organ damage.

Once you’re in stable condition, a doctor can treat any underlying conditions causing your respiratory failure.

Depending on any underlying conditions, a doctor can treat you in multiple ways, including the following scenarios:

  • If you’re in pain or having difficulty breathing, a doctor may prescribe pain medication or other medications to help you breathe better.
  • If you cannot breathe adequately, a doctor may insert a breathing tube into your mouth or nose and connect the tube to a ventilator to help you breathe.
  • If you can adequately breathe on your own and your hypoxemia (low blood oxygen) is mild, you may need supplemental oxygen from an oxygen tank to help you breathe better. This may include a portable air tank.
  • If you require prolonged ventilator support, you may need a tracheostomy. This operation creates an artificial airway in your windpipe.

Acute respiratory failure can cause long-term damage to your lungs.

It may take several weeks for your oxygen and carbon dioxide levels to reach a healthy range. You may also require pulmonary rehabilitation, which can include:

  • exercise therapy
  • education
  • counseling

The following include questions commonly asked about acute respiratory failure.

Can you recover from acute respiratory failure?

You can recover from acute respiratory failure, but immediate medical attention is essential. Your recovery treatment plan may include treatment for any physical trauma from the respiratory failure, the cause of the respiratory failure, and any procedures or medications you received while in the hospital.

Additionally, some people may experience post-intensive care syndrome (PICS) after a life threatening condition. PICS can include:

  • physical issues
  • cognitive issues
  • mental health issues

Is acute respiratory failure a cause of death?

Acute respiratory failure can result in death if you do not treat it quickly. If you experience any acute respiratory failure symptoms, seek immediate medical care.

How long does respiratory failure last?

Acute respiratory failure is a short-term medical condition. It happens suddenly and requires immediate treatment. Chronic respiratory failure is an ongoing condition.

Acute respiratory failure requires immediate medical attention and can be fatal.

Causes can include an injury or obstruction to your airway. Symptoms may include shortness of breath or dizziness. You may also experience severe drowsiness.

Once you are in stable condition, a doctor can treat any underlying conditions causing respiratory failure. They may recommend medication and breathing support to improve your breathing ability.