Respiratory Failure - Causes

What are the causes of respiratory failure?

When we breathe we are taking in oxygen which then passes to the blood and can be used by cells for daily functions. At the same time, waste gas called carbon dioxide is also taken from the blood and enters the lungs. We then breathe this out.

In order for us to breathe, not only the lungs are involved but also the muscles of the chest wall, and the brain (which co-ordinates our breathing). The heart is also important.

Types of respiratory failure

Respiratory failure can be divided into two types:

  • Type I respiratory failure - the blood oxygen is low and the carbon dioxide is normal or low.
  • Type II respiratory failure - the blood oxygen is low and the carbon dioxide is high.

Respiratory failure can also be described according to the time it takes to develop:

  • Acute - happens within minutes or hours; usually, the patient has no underlying lung disease.
  • Chronic - occurs over days and usually there is an underlying lung disease.
  • Acute on chronic - this is usually a sudden or quick worsening of the respiratory function in someone who already has chronic respiratory failure.

Causes of respiratory failure

Common causes of type I respiratory failure

  • Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).
  • Pneumonia.
  • Pulmonary oedema.
  • Pulmonary fibrosis.
  • Asthma.
  • Pneumothorax.
  • Pulmonary embolism.
  • Pulmonary hypertension.
  • Cyanotic congenital heart disease.
  • Bronchiectasis.
  • Acute respiratory distress syndrome.
  • Respiratory illness associated with HIV infection.
  • Kyphoscoliosis.
  • Obesity.

Common causes of type II respiratory failure

  • COPD.
  • Severe asthma.
  • Drug overdose, poisoning.
  • Myasthenia gravis.
  • Polyneuropathy.
  • Poliomyelitis.
  • Muscle disorders.
  • Head injuries and neck injuries.
  • Obesity.
  • Pulmonary oedema.
  • Acute respiratory distress syndrome.
  • Hypothyroidism.

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Dr Gurvinder Rull
Peer Reviewer:
Prof Cathy Jackson
Document ID:
29398 (v1)
Last Checked:
06 July 2017
Next Review:
05 July 2020

Disclaimer: This article is for information only and should not be used for the diagnosis or treatment of medical conditions. Patient Platform Limited has used all reasonable care in compiling the information but make no warranty as to its accuracy. Consult a doctor or other health care professional for diagnosis and treatment of medical conditions. For details see our conditions.