Breathing Emergencies: Recognize the Signs of Respiratory Distress and Arrest

Breathing requires the respiratory, circulatory, nervous, and musculoskeletal systems to work together. Injuries or illnesses that affect any of these systems may impair breathing. For example, if the heart stops beating, the casualty will stop breathing.

The body requires a constant supply of oxygen for survival. When you breathe air into your lungs, the oxygen in the air is transferred to the blood. The blood then takes the oxygen to the brain, organs, muscles, and all parts of the body. The body needs oxygen to perform its many functions such as breathing, walking, talking, digesting food, and maintaining body temperature.

In respiratory arrest, the body receives no oxygen to continue its functions. After a few minutes without oxygen, body systems begin to fail. A person loses consciousness within a minute and eventually the heart muscle stops. Other body system then start to fail. Without oxygen, cells begin to die in 4 to 6 minutes. Unless the brain receives oxygen within minutes, brain damage or death will result.

Causes of Respiratory Distress and Arrest

Common conditions that can cause respiratory distress include asthma, medical illness, chest trauma, and anaphylactic shock. Respiratory arrest can be caused by such things as choking, illness such as pneumonia, electrocution, shock, drowning, heart attack, heart disease, injury to the head, and poisoning.

Signs and Symptoms of Respiratory Distress

A person experiencing respiratory distress should be helped to prevent the situation from becoming worse. This involves helping the person take any medications they may have, keeping their body temperature normal, comforting them, and improving air flow in the area. These steps should be taken when the following signs and symptoms present themselves:

  • The person may seem unable to catch his or her breath or may be gasping for air.
  • Breathing may be faster or slower than normal.
  • Breathing may be unusually deep or shallow.
  • The person may make unusual noises such as wheezing or gurgling.
  • The person's skin at first may be unusually moist and flushed, later appearing pale or bluish as the oxygen level in the blood falls.
  • The person may feel dizzy or lightheaded.
  • Feelings of pain in the chest or tingling in the hands and feet.
  • Feelings of apprehension, fear, or anxiety.

Signs and Symptoms of Respiratory Arrest

Respiratory arrest is serious as the time available to react is small. If someone has stopped breathing, immediately begin rescue breathing and CPR. Looking for the following clues that someone is not longer breathing.

  • Unconsciousness.
  • Bluish appearance of the face.
  • Absence of chest and abdominal movement other than the occasional attempt to breathe.
  • Absence of breath sounds other than the occasional gasp or gurgle.
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