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How to Manage a Respiratory Arrest?

respiratory arrest

Respiratory arrest is a condition where there is no oxygen or too much carbon dioxide in your body. It can happen all at once or come on over time. Several underlying conditions can cause it. Acute respiratory failure poses a threat to lives. Call 911 if you think you are experiencing respiratory failure.

What is respiratory arrest?

Respiratory failure is a medical emergency in which a person stops breathing. Unlike causing respiratory distress, respiratory arrest means that breathing has stopped completely. The condition can lead to cardiac arrest if not treated immediately. Keep reading to explore more about the causes, respiratory failure symptoms, and management of respiratory arrest.

What are the types of respiratory arrest?

Here are the types of respiratory arrest:

1. Hypoxic respiratory arrest

Hypoxic respiratory arrest takes place when there is insufficient oxygen in the blood to sustain life. Various conditions can cause this type of arrest, which impairs or blocks the airway. It can also block the ability of the lungs to exchange oxygen effectively.

Examples: The examples include choking, when a foreign object prevents oxygen from reaching the lungs. Another example includes asthma attacks, which reduce the amount of oxygen that can enter the lungs.

2. Hypercapnic respiratory arrest

Hypercapnic respiratory arrest takes place when it causes a buildup of carbon dioxide in the blood due to inadequate respiration. This condition is a result of the body’s ability to expel carbon dioxide effectively. Examples include chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and opioid overdose.

3. Mixed respiratory arrest

Mixed respiratory arrest is a blend of hypoxia and hypercapnia. This can occur in several conditions without optimum carbon dioxide and oxygen updates. The examples include severe pneumonia and advanced neuromuscular disorders.

Causes and risk factors

Various medical conditions can cause respiratory arrest, which impedes normal breathing. Here are some common causes:

  1. Airway obstruction: The blockage is a common cause of respiratory arrest in adults and children. It can lead to reactions such as swelling of the airway.
  2. Respiratory diseases: Advanced COPD can limit airflow. It causes respiratory failure. Severe asthma attacks often restrict the airways to the point where it becomes difficult to breathe.
  3. Infections: Severe infections can lead to inflammation and fluid accumulation. This weakens the ability to exchange gas.
  4. Neurological disorders: Damage to the respiratory centers of the brain can challenge normal breathing patterns. Severe head trauma can have an impact on the brain’s ability to control breathing.
  5. Drug overdose: The drugs can impact the central nervous system and slow down breathing. Overdoses can damage the respiratory system.
  6. Cardiac arrest: A sudden heart attack can cause respiratory arrest due to inadequate delivery of circulation and oxygen.

Read More: High-quality CPR: Overview, Components, and Technology

Risk factors

Certain risk factors can cause respiratory arrest:

Pre-existing respiratory conditions:

If you have any preexisting respiratory diseases, such as asthma, it can cause respiratory arrest.


Age is a major factor, as infants and young children are prone to obstruction. Additionally, elderly individuals are also at a higher risk, especially with the prevalence of chronic diseases.


According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, smoking is responsible for 90% of all deaths caused by lung cancer. Smoking is harmful, causing damage to lung tissue. This leads to conditions such as COPD, increasing the risk of respiratory failure.

Substance abuse: 

Abuse of drugs raises the risk of respiratory arrest. It may be due to the depressant effects it causes on the central nervous system.

Medical history: 

Allergic reactions increase the risk of airway obstruction and respiratory arrest.

Severe infections: 

Individuals exposed to infections such as sepsis or pneumonia are at higher risk.


Severe physical trauma can disrupt the normal functioning of the respiratory system.

Differentiating between respiratory distress, respiratory failure, and respiratory arrest

1. Respiratory distress

Respiratory distress occurs when an individual experiences difficulty breathing. Several factors can cause asthma, pneumonia, and other respiratory illnesses. Symptoms include rapid breathing and shortness of breath. The body is able to maintain adequate gas exchange. However, the effort required has increased.

2. Respiratory failure

Respiratory failure is a severe condition compared to respiratory distress. It occurs when the respiratory system cannot maintain adequate gas exchange. This leads to low oxygen levels and high carbon dioxide levels.

3. Respiratory arrest: 

Respiratory arrest is a severe condition and takes place when breathing stops completely. This decreases oxygen levels and increases carbon dioxide in the body. This is harmful and can lead to cardiac arrest. You need immediate intervention to restore breathing and avoid harmful outcomes.

What causes respiratory arrest?

Respiratory arrest is critical and occurs when a person stops breathing. It is crucial to understand the causes and recognize the signs of early arrest. Recognizing respiratory arrest is significant, and here are a few signs of respiratory distress.

  • Lack of breathing: no movement of the abdomen or chest
  • Changes in consciousness: loss of consciousness or unresponsiveness.

These show a severe emergency requiring immediate actions such as calling emergency services and assuming resuscitation.

Detailed signs that medical professionals would observe include

  • Cyanosis: This is a discoloration of the lips, skin, and fingernails. This is caused by a lack of oxygen in the blood.
  • Absence of breath sounds: While using a stethoscope, healthcare providers will note the absence of normal breath sounds. You can hear abnormal sounds such as wheezing and gurgling.

Medical professionals use these respiratory depression symptoms to diagnose respiratory arrest and start interventions.

Recognizing respiratory depression

Here are some warning signs that take place after a full arrest:

  1. Shallow breathing: The breathing rate may drop significantly. As a result, breaths may become shallow. This indicates oxygen insufficiency.
  2. Confusion or drowsiness: The person may appear tired. This can be a sign of an inadequate oxygen supply.
  3. Fatigue: Extreme tiredness is another sign to look for. This signals that the oxygen levels are low.

How do you manage a respiratory event?

When respiratory arrest occurs, it is crucial to take immediate action to prevent any outcomes, such as brain death. Both healthcare providers and laypersons are crucial in managing respiratory events. Here are the steps to follow:

Healthcare provider protocols

  • Call for help: This is the first action to take to manage a respiratory arrest. This assures professional help.
  • Initiate CPR: You must start resuscitation immediately. CPR is useful in maintaining circulation and oxygenation. This includes rescue breaths and chest compressions.

Airway management steps

  • Bag-valve mask: Use a bag-valve mask and offer ventilation. Seal the mask properly over the patient’s face and deliver breaths.
  • Incubation considerations: Consider endotracheal intubation to secure the airway and offer ventilation. A skilled healthcare provider performs this procedure.
  • Medications: A few medications are necessary to manage respiratory arrest. This includes drugs that address the underlying causes. Healthcare providers must follow industry guidelines and protocols to ensure proper dosages and regimens.

Post-resuscitation care

Once the patient has stabilized, you must ensure post-resuscitation care. This involves supportive care, continuous monitoring, and care.

Caregivers and public actions

If you are a caregiver, you must call out emergency services. A quick response significantly improves outcomes.

CPR instructions

It is beneficial for everyone to seek training in CPR. Links to reputable resources help provide valuable information.

Automated external defibrillators

AEDs are crucial devices that help save lives during medical emergencies such as sudden cardiac arrest. Laypersons use this and can provide life-saving defibrillation before emergency services arrive.

What are the prevention strategies?

Preventing respiratory arrest involves managing chronic conditions and treating infections. Here are some prevention strategies:

  1. Managing chronic conditions: Make sure that you regularly monitor and treat chronic, respiratory, and cardiac conditions.
  2. Treat infections: Effective and prompt treatment prevents complications that might cause a sudden respiratory arrest.
  3. Modify lifestyle: Suit your lifestyle in a way that promotes healthy lifestyle choices.
  4. Reduce smoking: Smoking is dangerous, so seek help to reduce the risk.
  5. Manage your weight: Maintain a healthy weight to help prevent conditions. This may lead to respiratory arrest.

Resources for at-risk individuals

Offering support and resources for individuals at risk can prevent respiratory events.

  • Support groups: Support groups for conditions such as heart disease or COPD can offer motivation and valuable help.
  • Monitoring devices: Devices that monitor respiratory function can alert individuals to potential issues.


It is crucial to recognize and offer prompt action to manage respiratory arrest. Immediate intervention can prevent severe complications, such as death. Recognizing the signs early, such as changes in consciousness, and initiating appropriate measures, such as CPR, can improve outcomes. Effective treatment by healthcare providers stabilizes the patient.