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Chronic Respiratory Failure


What is chronic respiratory failure?

Chronic respiratory failure (CRF) is a long-term condition that happens when your lungs cannot get enough oxygen into your blood. Your heart, brain, and other organs depend on the oxygen in your blood to work properly. CRF can also happen when your lungs cannot get the carbon dioxide out of your blood. A buildup of carbon dioxide in your blood can cause damage to your organs. The decrease in oxygen and the buildup of carbon dioxide can happen at the same time. CRF may develop over a period of days to years.

What causes chronic respiratory failure?

  • Heart conditions such as left-sided heart failure or mitral stenosis
  • Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)
  • A problem with the nerves that control breathing
  • A problem with muscles that help with breathing

What are the symptoms of CRF?

  • Rapid breathing
  • Shortness of breath, especially with activity
  • Feeling like you cannot get enough air
  • A bluish color on your skin, fingernails, and lips
  • Waking up with a headache or feeling very sleepy during the day
  • Confusion or feeling like you never get enough sleep
  • Swelling of your hands and feet

How is CRF diagnosed?

  • An arterial blood gas (ABG) test measures the amount of oxygen and carbon dioxide in your blood. An ABG test also measures the pH of your blood and the amount of bicarbonate in it.
  • Pulse oximetry will show the decrease in blood oxygen without having to draw blood.

How is CRF treated?

Treatment depends on the cause of your CRF and how severe it is. You may need any of the following:

  • Oxygen may be given if your blood oxygen levels are low. Oxygen may be given through a nasal cannula, mask, or tracheotomy. A tracheostomy is an opening made during surgery that goes through your neck and into your windpipe.
  • Medicines may be given to open your airways or treat other lung or heart disease.
  • A mechanical ventilator helps get oxygen into your lungs and carbon dioxide out. A mechanical ventilator also makes the work of breathing easier. It is attached to a mask or breathing tube called a tracheostomy. A tracheostomy is a surgically placed hole in your windpipe. The mechanical ventilator may only be needed during sleep.

How do I manage CRF?

  • Do not smoke. Smoking can make your symptoms worse. If you smoke, it is never too late to quit. Ask for information if you need help quitting. Being around others who smoke can also make your symptoms worse.
  • Go to pulmonary rehabilitation (rehab). Your healthcare provider may suggest pulmonary rehab. Pulmonary rehab will educate you about your condition and will help you improve your quality of life.
  • Prepare for emergencies. Keep phone numbers for your healthcare provider, hospital, and someone close to you with you at all times. Also, keep a list of the medicines you take.

When should I or someone close to me call 911?

  • You are having more trouble catching your breath.
  • You have stopped breathing.

When should I contact my healthcare provider?

  • Your have new symptoms.
  • Your symptoms get worse.
  • You have questions or concerns about your condition or care.

Care Agreement

You have the right to help plan your care. Learn about your health condition and how it may be treated. Discuss treatment options with your caregivers to decide what care you want to receive. You always have the right to refuse treatment. The above information is an educational aid only. It is not intended as medical advice for individual conditions or treatments. Talk to your doctor, nurse or pharmacist before following any medical regimen to see if it is safe and effective for you.

Further information

Always consult your healthcare provider to ensure the information displayed on this page applies to your personal circumstances.

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