Respiratory Failure - Complications

What are the complications of respiratory failure?

As a result of respiratory failure various complications can occur, including:

  • Lung complications: for example, a blood clot on the lung (pulmonary embolism), irreversible scarring of the lungs (pulmonary fibrosis), a collection of air between the lung and chest wall (pneumothorax) which can further compromise breathing, chronic respiratory failure and dependence on a ventilator.
  • Heart complications: for example, heart failure, fluid around the heart (pericarditis) and acute heart attack.
  • Increase in blood count (called polycythaemia): the increased level of red cells occurs from low blood oxygen levels but can lead to blood clots, due to sluggish flow in the blood vessels.
  • Neurological complications: a prolonged period of low blood oxygen levels can deprive the brain of oxygen, which may be irreversible and may present as coma, fits (seizures) and even brain death.
  • Prolonged hospital admissions can lead to the following complications:
    • Hospital-acquired infections: for example, pneumonia and diarrhoea. A pneumonia is likely to put further strain on the respiratory function and can require a need for further ventilation.
    • Malnutrition which may require assisted feeding methods, such as a tube being inserted down the nose into the stomach (nasogastric feeding), or providing nutrition through a needle straight into the bloodstream. Both of these methods have complications of their own.
    • Complications from being bed bound for long periods: wasting of limbs with associated weakness, pressure sores, deep vein thrombosis and mental depression.

What is the outlook following respiratory failure?

How well a patient does depends on several factors, including age, the underlying cause and whether it is treatable, the speed of diagnosis and presence of any other illnesses and complications.

Can respiratory failure be prevented?

Smoking is a key factor in many cases of respiratory failure and stopping smoking and/or never smoking are important to prevent respiratory failure.

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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.