Respiratory Failure - Treatment

What is the treatment for respiratory failure?

Patients with sudden-onset (acute) respiratory failure or a new diagnosis of chronic respiratory failure need to be admitted to hospital immediately. They need to be resuscitated and may need admission to an intensive care unit with artificial ventilation and life support. On the other hand many patients with chronic respiratory failure can be treated at home. This will depend on how severe the respiratory failure is, the underlying cause, whether other illnesses are present and the patient's social circumstances. Some patients may need ventilators at home and oxygen support.

Treatment will be directed towards correcting the blood oxygen and carbon dioxide levels and treating the underlying cause.

Treatment of respiratory failure

This may include:

  • Oxygen - high levels will be given through a mask (although lower levels may be needed in patients with chronic respiratory failure who have adapted to high carbon dioxide levels).
  • Artificial ventilation:
    • Mechanical ventilation:
      • This involves the patient being put into a coma, using medication and paralysing their breathing.
      • A tube is inserted into the trachea and an artificial ventilator then does the work of breathing.
      • Once the underlying cause is treated, patients will be 'weaned' off the ventilator so that their lungs start to do the work of breathing.
      • This is a form of 'invasive' ventilation.
    • Non-invasive ventilation (NIV):
      • This is an alternative to invasive ventilation and is increasingly being used, especially in cases where weaning from an artificial ventilator may prove difficult.
      • It is used when there is a low blood oxygen level and high blood carbon dioxide level, ie type II respiratory failure. The main disease it is used in is chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).
      • It can also be used to help wean patients from invasive ventilation.
    • Extracorporeal membrane oxygenation (ECMO):
      • This is a more recent technique being used in patients of all ages.
      • It involves blood being artificially removed from the body and then oxygen being added by a machine whilst carbon dioxide is removed. The blood is then returned to the patient.
      • One of the main uses of this method in adults at present is in severe heart failure where other treatments have failed.
  • The underlying cause may also require treatment - for example, steroids and antibiotics.
  • For some patients there may not be any further treatment options and their respiratory failure may be terminal. They may benefit from the palliative care team, which deals with managing patients with terminal illnesses.

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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.