Respiratory Failure - Symptoms

What are the symptoms of respiratory failure?

It is possible that respiratory failure can occur slowly and that patients adapt, such as walking slower and avoiding physical tasks. This is less common and patients may complain of the following symptoms:

  • Shortness of breath - at first, this may happen only on exertion; however, later on it may also occur at rest and when trying to sleep.
  • Tiredness - this is due to a lack of oxygen getting to the body's organs.
  • A bluish tinge to the hands or lips - the medical term for this is 'cyanosis'. It can be noticed when at rest and may worsen with exertion.
  • Confusion and reduced consciousness - this can occur when either the blood oxygen levels are low or when the carbon dioxide level increases.
  • There may also be features of the underlying cause - for example, chest pain in heart disease, weakness of limbs in neurological disorders, wheeze in asthma.

When the healthcare professional makes an assessment, they may find the following:

  • High breathing (respiratory) rate.
  • A bluish tinge to lips and fingers (cyanosis).
  • Restlessness, anxiety, confusion, fits (seizures) or coma - these can occur due to the abnormalities in blood gases.
  • On listening to the lungs there may be noises suggestive of infection, fluid overload or asthma, depending on the underlying cause.
  • There may also be features of right-sided heart failure which can occur due to the strain on the heart. This is called 'cor pulmonale' and there will be fluid retention evidenced by an enlarged liver, swelling of the tummy (abdomen) and swelling of the legs.

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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.