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What is Respiratory Arrest?

Mary McMahon
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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Respiratory arrest is a medical emergency characterized by a complete cessation of breathing. Within minutes, the patient will usually go into cardiac arrest, if he or she does not do so immediately when going into respiratory arrest. If normal gas exchange in the lungs stops for more than five minutes, irreversible damage will be done to the brain, and if the patient is successfully revived, she or he could experience permanent neurological impairments.

There are a number of reasons why someone can go into respiratory arrest. One reason is airway obstruction, which may occur in the upper or lower airway and can be caused by things such as allergic reactions, blood or mucus in the airways, or a foreign object in the airway. Trauma can also lead to respiratory arrest, as can neurological impairments and muscular impairments. Another reason is drug overdose, which slows the respiratory system and heart rate and can cause someone to stop breathing entirely.

The signs of respiratory arrest are very easy to identify. The patient often appears extremely agitated, is unable to speak, and may gesture in a way which is intended to indicate that she or he is having trouble breathing. Prior to respiratory arrest, breathing may be labored or erratic, and the patient may be confused or exhibit other symptoms of impairment. Very quickly, the patient usually becomes unconscious and cyanotic, with the nail beds, lips, and extremities turning blue.

The immediate treatment for respiratory arrest is artificial ventilation to get oxygen into the patient. This may come in the form of cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) which is also designed to restart the heart. Once the patient is breathing again, steps can be taken to find out why the patient went into arrest, and to treat the underlying cause. In some cases, a patient may require long term artificial ventilation because she or he cannot breathe independently.

The severity of this medical emergency cannot be understated. If someone stops breathing, artificial ventilation should be provided immediately through rescue breathing while emergency services are called. When calling to report respiratory or cardiac arrest, the caller should quickly state the location and make it clear that the patient is not breathing. The caller will usually be asked to stay on the line until the ambulance arrives, and, if necessary, will be coached through rescue breathing, CPR, and other steps which can be taken to improve the patient's chances of survival in the time it will take for emergency services to arrive.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a The Health Board researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By anon993231 — On Oct 30, 2015

I went into respiratory arrest 2.5 weeks ago. I am a fire fighter and my fellow fire fighters arrived within minutes and performed CPR which saved my life. I owe my life to them, EMT's and the ICU unit!

By anon991870 — On Jul 24, 2015

I am a firefighter/paramedic and have seen both sides of the outcome of respiratory arrest. I would love to see everyone learn the importance of CPR, new data has been included in recent changes in CPR. We respond to a 911 call, but sadly critical minutes are wasted while we race to help. Outcomes would improve, if only people; trained in CPR would apply those life saving skills. With each loss of life, we all feel the effects. We first responders could easily say I give up, its useless. Yet we know that CPR does save lives, and it does work! I hope and pray you all can step forward, get trained, take refresher courses and use those skills. Be safe.

By anon985066 — On Jan 13, 2015

I have had a respiratory arrest from a chronic asthma attack. Luckily for me the paramedics arrived about two minutes before I stopped breathing. I can remember struggling to breathe and getting very agitated, which is not like me at all.

I cannot remember anything else until I woke up in ICU the next day with a tube down my throat, wondering what was going on and why I was there.

I have made a full recovery. A few people have asked me if I saw a light at the end of a tunnel or if I was guided towards a light, but to be honest, I saw nothing. I just thought I had been to sleep and then woke up. I could not understand what all the fuss was about until I found out what had happened.

By lisajeane — On Nov 15, 2013

I just went through respiratory arrest eight days ago. It was horrible. Apparently, I had "walking pneumonia" and had been coughing up mucus and had sweats (mistaken for menopause). I had been to the local ER three times in the last couple months and was never properly diagnosed or treated. Although I knew I wasn't feeling great, I decided to go to a shopping center because of a Christmas sale. I was fine at the first store, but while in the second store I started to feel funny, like I was having an adrenalin rush. Then my breathing became very bad within five minutes.

I yelled for the store personnel to call an ambulance and sat down. Luckily, there was a nurse in the store who came over to help me. My breathing totally closed off and within a minute I passed out. I woke up the next morning with an intubation tube down my throat and my hands tied down so I couldn't remove it. They said it took all night to get me right again and that I went into respiratory arrest twice, had no pulse when the ambulance got there and was purple. Luckily the hospital (different one) was right across the street.

They had to check my brain for damage, but I'm OK other than getting dizzy easily and my ears ringing but it's going away. When they take you off the ventilator they turn it off but leave the tube in your throat for an hour or so to test if you can breathe, which feels like a long, drawn out asthma attack. You can't speak and it's miserable. I was lucky that I came out OK. If I had been alone or farther from the hospital, etc., I would probably be dead or at least brain damaged.

By anon335278 — On May 19, 2013

My Dad went into respiratory arrest six months ago at my house. I performed CPR and brought him him back. He went to hospital and was diagnosed with a narrow artery in his heart and had a stent fitted.

The very same thing happened three days ago and again I performed CPR, he went to hospital and the doctors did lots of tests but found nothing wrong with him! They said it is one of those things! I just hope it doesn't happen again! If I can do CPR, then anyone can! It is better to do something than nothing.

By Saraq90 — On Sep 29, 2011

@sunnySkys - I agree with you. I think that it should be a requirement for all people who can understand how to do CPR to do it. At least this way there would be more people who would know what to do if someone went into respiratory and/or cardiac arrest.

I hope that if I have to give rescue breaths that I do it perfectly, so the person has a better chance of survival.

By Sinbad — On Sep 28, 2011

@Perdido - I am so sorry for your friend's loss! This is what I am afraid of happening if I ever have to give CPR to a person in need, that they would still not survive.

I hope that your friend doesn't feel guilty in any way, because she obviously did all she could to save him. Since the medical professionals said that even if he was in the hospital he probably wouldn't have made it, I hope she believes them and this helps relieve some of her stress.

By Perdido — On Sep 28, 2011

My friend’s husband went into respiratory arrest due to heart problems. She called 911, and she put them on speaker phone while she did CPR and chest compressions.

Sadly, it did not work. The ambulance got there in fifteen minutes, and the emergency technician tried to revive him by shocking him over and over, but he was gone.

They determined that he had experienced a heart attack and a stroke together. So, even if it had happened inside the hospital, they probably still couldn’t have saved him. Too much damage had been done in just a few seconds.

By seag47 — On Sep 27, 2011

@orangey03 - I haven’t personally experienced it, but my cousin did. He fell out of a boat and couldn’t swim. We didn’t know this until he didn’t come back up to the surface.

His brother jumped in and fished him out of the water. He wasn’t breathing, and his skin was blue.

Another person in the boat did chest compressions on him, and after about a minute, he came back to us. He coughed up some water and struggled with his breathing for a few moments.

He said that his chest felt like he had just jumped into icy water, even though the lake was very warm. His entire respiratory system was irritated, and he was in pain for hours.

By orangey03 — On Sep 27, 2011

I recently read an article on the effectiveness of CPR in people with respiratory arrest. Though it doesn’t work as often and as well as it does on television shows, it is better than doing nothing, and in some cases, it is the best thing you can do.

The article said that CPR is more effective on people who have fallen into cold water than elderly people who have collapsed because of heart or lung issues. This is because the older people had health problems to begin with, yet someone who fell into a lake might have been perfectly healthy.

I wonder what it feels like to come back from respiratory arrest. Has anyone ever experienced this?

By Azuza — On Sep 26, 2011

@sunnySkys - CPR definitely saves lives. I think your suggestion is a good one.

Stuff like this makes me wonder why people bother using recreational drugs. I personally enjoy breathing. I don't think I would want to risk my life just to get high for a little while.

By sunnySkys — On Sep 26, 2011

I think it's important for everyone to know CPR in case someone goes into respiratory arrest. It seems like permanent damage could be done very quickly. I'm pretty sure it takes more than 5 minutes for an ambulance to arrive in most cases!

I think they should make CPR a requirement in high school health classes. I'm sure a lot of lives could be saved this way!

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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