Respiratory failure: Inability of the lungs to perform their basic task of gas exchange, the transfer of oxygen from inhaled air into the blood and the transfer of carbon dioxide from the blood into exhaled air. Respiratory failure occurs because of the failure of the exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide in tiny air sacs in the lung (alveoli), failure of the brain centers that control breathing, or failure of the muscles required to expand the lungs that can cause respiratory failure. Many different medical conditions can lead to respiratory failure, including asthma, emphysema, chronic obstructive lung disease, surgery (on the abdomen, heart, or lungs), overdose of sleeping pills or other depressant drugs, premature birth, multiple physical injuries (as in auto accidents), extensive burns, muscle disease, nerve disease, profuse bleeding, near drowning, heart failure, severe infection, and extreme obesity.
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Last Editorial Review: 5/13/2016