Fatal respiratory depression: Causes, symptoms, & treatment

Friday March 4, 2022 |
Fatal respiratory depression: Causes, symptoms, & treatment

Fatal respiratory depression

Respiratory depression is also referred to as hypoventilation. It refers to a shallow or slow breathing rate. There are various causes, some of which are more severe than others.

Your brain controls the respiratory drive, so anything that affects the function of your central nervous system, including the brain, can result in respiratory depressionIn less severe cases, an individual may not notice any symptoms. In some cases, they may have shallow or slow breathing.

Respiratory Failure

Respiration machines and oxygen therapy may help treat symptoms of respiratory problems, depending on their severity. Without a cure, it may cause severe life-threatening complications and even death.

From this blog, you will learn about respiratory depressionincluding its symptoms, causes, treatment, and diagnosis.

Overview of Respiratory depression

Respiratory depression occurs when your lungs fail to efficiently exchange carbon dioxide and oxygen. This problem results in the buildup of carbon dioxide in the body, which may cause health problems.

During a healthy breathing cycle, you inhale oxygen. Your blood carries that oxygen around your body, delivering it to your tissues. Your blood then takes the lousy air or carbon dioxide back to your lungs. It then exits your body when you exhale.

During respiratory depression, your body cannot adequately remove carbon dioxide. It can then result in poor use of oxygen by your lungs, and the result will be a high level of carbon dioxide and less oxygen available in the body.

Respiratory depression is different from hyperventilation. Hyperventilation occurs when you breathe too fast, lowering carbon dioxide levels in the blood.

The typical symptom of this condition is taking more shallow or slow breaths than average. In many cases, breathing rates are lower than 8 to 10 breaths per minute. The average breathing rate in a healthy person is about 12 to 20 breaths per minute.

It may cause acid to build up in the body and results in respiratory acidosis, a fatal condition associated with the failure of organs.

Causes of respiratory depression

Respiratory depression may occur for various reasons. Several medications and substances may cause this condition or increase a person’s risk. It includes sedative drugs, opioid pain drugs, or other substances that depress brain function, such as illegal drugs and alcohol.

Common causes of respiratory depression may include:

  • chest wall deformities
  • severe obesity
  • neuromuscular disease
  • brain injury
  • chronic lung disease
  • obstructive sleep apnea
  • overdose of sedatives
  • brain tumor
  • strokes that may affect the lower brain stem

Respiratory problems may also occur as a side effect of certain drugs. A heavy dose of CNS depressants may slow down the respiratory system.

Drugs that may have these side effects on the body may include:

  • barbiturates and alcohol
  • opioids and sedatives
  • benzodiazepines and other drugs

How to recognize respiratory depression?

The respiratory depression symptoms may depend on the severity of the condition. In severe cases, these symptoms may become more evident. Some signs of this include:

  • disorientation and confusion
  • fatigue and lethargy
  • dizziness and headache
  • nausea and dizziness

Some people may also experience symptoms such as:

  • vomiting and tremors
  • shallow or slow breathing
  • low or high blood pressure
  • reduced or pinpoint pupil
  • seizures or rapid heart rate
  • bluish skin

If an individual does not receive treatment at the time, severe respiratory depression may lead to heart attack, respiratory arrest, reduced heart rate, brain damage, or even coma. Anyone who suspects these symptoms or notices other symptoms should seek emergency help as soon as possible.

If you are in the company of someone with such a condition, it is essential to keep them alert and to move as much as possible.

How can I diagnose respiratory depression?

Your healthcare professional may begin your diagnosis by asking you several questions about your symptoms, medical history, and medication profile. They may then recommend physical examination to look for heart rhythms and abnormal breathing signs.

Experts may recommend you a series of examinations to determine the cause of respiratory depression. These tests may include:

  • X-ray: an imaging test that takes the image of the chest area to check the abnormalities
  • Blood gas test: It is a blood test used to measure the amount of carbon dioxide, oxygen, and acid balance in your blood.
  • Lung test: It is a breathing test that is used to determine how well your lungs work.
  • Pulse test: This test helps measure the oxygen level in the bloodstream through a painless monitor on the finger.
  • Hemoglobin blood test: This test is done to assess the number of red blood cells available to carry oxygen through your body.
  • CT scans or MRIs of the brain to check tumors and strokes
  • serum ammonia level
  • alcohol level an electroencephalogram

What are the possible symptoms of respiratory depression?

It is a treatable condition, and the treatments vary according to the causes. Stopping the medication may restore a normal breathing process when a drug triggers the state.

Treatments such as therapies and medications that experts commonly recommend to treat respiratory depression may include:

  • fluid therapy
  • oxygen therapy
  • bi-level positive airway pressure
  • mechanical ventilation
  • continuous positive airways pressure

If overdose of the medication is the cause of this condition, detoxification of the drug will require. Your health care professionals often use the medicines that may work against the effects of opioid medications such as naloxone, methadone, and a combination of buprenorphine.


Respiratory depression occurs when the lungs do not effectively exchange the gases carbon dioxide and oxygen. It may result in the complications, such as respiratory acidosis, and without proper, it can become dangerous or may result in other health conditions.

Causes of this condition may include medical conditions that affect the brain. It may consist of strokes and drugs or recreational drugs that may impair the function of the central nervous system.

Following the proper treatment can prevent the development of this condition. It may interfere with your quality of life. Early diagnosis and treatment may help your body maintain healthy oxygen and carbon dioxide and prevent complications.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *