Chronic Respiratory Failure

December 10, 2021
Janelle Thomas MSN, RN
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Respiratory failure describes a state where the respiratory system is unable to either remove carbon dioxide from the bloodstream or exchange oxygen into it. This leads to an imbalance of the oxygen levels in the blood, which can have serious effects on your health and ability to function.

Respiratory failure can be both chronic and acute, and either type is generally seen as a serious medical condition. If you or a loved one has been diagnosed with chronic respiratory failure, learning more about this condition can help you take a more proactive role in treatment.

The Basics of Chronic Respiratory Failure

In medical terms, acute conditions are severe and arise on a short-term basis. Chronic conditions are ongoing with either persistent or recurring health issues. It is possible for someone with a chronic condition, such as chronic respiratory failure to have an acute episode that requires immediate medical attention.

The respiratory system, which consists mainly of the airways and lungs, as well as supporting blood vessels and muscles, transfers the oxygenated air that enters our body into the bloodstream. Meanwhile, it transfers waste in the form of carbon dioxide out of the blood every time we breathe out. This complex exchange process needs to happen efficiently every time.

Chronic respiratory failure is any condition that disrupts this process on a persistent or recurring basis for months or years at a time.

Chronic Respiratory Failure Causes

Chronic respiratory failure is usually caused by an underlying problem that either inhibits the flow of air into the lungs, or disrupts the exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide into the blood.

Common lung conditions and diseases that can lead to chronic respiratory failure include:

  • Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)
  • Cystic fibrosis
  • Stroke
  • Pneumonia
  • Spine conditions and injuries, such as scoliosis
  • Chest injuries
  • Smoking, alcohol consumption, or substance abuse

Signs and Symptoms of Chronic Respiratory Failure

Very often, chronic respiratory failure symptoms will develop slowly over a period of time. These gradual symptoms can include:

  • Shortness of breath or labored breathing, especially after physical activities
  • Persistent coughing and wheezing
  • Fatigue
  • Noticeable bluish tint to the extremities, such as the fingertips and lips
  • Confusion and drowsiness
  • Headaches

These symptoms should always be taken seriously if they continue for days or weeks and should be checked out by a doctor. Watch out for any symptoms that may constitute a medical emergency, such as an inability to breathe, heart arrhythmias, or loss of consciousness.

Diagnosing and Treating Chronic Respiratory Failure

A doctor will usually diagnose a patient with chronic respiratory failure after performing the following steps:

  • Reviewing medical history
  • Discussing symptoms and how they affect activities
  • Conducting a thorough physical evaluation, particularly breathing and heart tests
  • Ordering lab tests, such as pulse oximetry, arterial blood gas testing, and bronchoscopy to measure oxygen levels in the blood and test lung tissue
  • Imaging tests for a closer look at the lungs and to identify possible breathing obstructions

Upon diagnosis, treatment may depend on the individual patient and his or her underlying conditions and state of health. Chronic respiratory failure can often be managed at home through certain medications, oxygen therapy, and physical and occupational therapy techniques.

In severe cases of respiratory failure, doctors may recommend more serious measures, including tracheostomy and mechanical ventilation. Although there is not currently a cure for chronic respiratory failure, it is often possible to manage this condition successfully on a long-term basis. Many patients with chronic respiratory failure can benefit from specialized assistance, including home health care.

Contact Care Options for Kids for Home Health Care

Our home health care services offer support in the comfort of your home. We refer loving and competent nurses to provide customized care for families — from a few hours a day to around-the-clock supervision. Contact us directly to speak with a home health care professional or request a free in-home assessment. Together we can determine the best plan of action to keep your loved ones happy and healthy.

If you or a loved one are considering home health care services, contact the caring staff at Care Options for Kids. Call today at (888) 592-5855.