A Comprehensive Guide to Respiratory Arrest: Causes, Symptoms, and Effective Treatment

In moments of crisis, knowing how to respond promptly and effectively can be a matter of life and death. Respiratory arrest, a condition where breathing ceases, is a medical emergency that requires immediate attention. Understanding how to manage such a crisis is crucial, whether it's caused by trauma, illness, or other factors. This comprehensive guide aims to equip individuals with the knowledge and skills needed to respond to respiratory arrest and potentially save lives.


What is a respiratory arrest?

Respiratory arrest is defined as complete cessation of breathing. It typically occurs due to events such as drowning or severe head injury. If one does not address it timely with proper intervention, respiratory arrest can cause brain damage and death. Respiratory arrest is a life-threatening emergency that requires prompt action with maintenance of tidal volume up to 500-600 milliliters through artificial respiration that helps restore breathing.


What is the difference between Respiratory distress and Respiratory arrest?

Respiratory arrest and respiratory distress are two terms used in the medical field; Respiratory distress is a condition in which a person feels difficulty and discomfort while breathing. Common signs include rapid or labored breathing, shortness of breath, and the use of accessory muscles like the chest and neck muscles to aid in breathing.

On the other hand, respiratory arrest is a condition in which there is a complete cessation of breathing. In respiratory arrest, the person is unresponsive, not breathing, and without intervention, it can rapidly lead to cardiac arrest and irreversible damage to vital organs.


How does respiratory distress escalate to respiratory arrest?

Respiratory distress can escalate to respiratory arrest when the underlying cause is not promptly treated, leading to a decline in oxygen levels. The progression is often influenced by the worsening of the original condition, failure of compensatory mechanisms, inadequate medical intervention, and potential cardiac complications.

As oxygen levels continue to drop, vital organs, particularly the brain and heart, become deprived of oxygen, resulting in a loss of consciousness and the complete cessation of breathing, marking respiratory arrest. Early recognition and effective management of respiratory distress are crucial to prevent its escalation to a life-threatening respiratory arrest.


Differences between Respiratory and Cardiac arrest

In emergency medicine, respiratory arrest and cardiac arrest are two distinct types of emergencies. Respiratory arrest is the cessation of breathing, but the heart may still be beating. It can lead to cardiac arrest.

Cardiac arrest is the cessation of the heart; a person stops breathing, and there is no detectable pulse.


Identification of respiratory distress as a precursor to respiratory arrest

The main cause of respiratory arrest is a complete failure of the respiratory system. Let’s discuss how it occurs;

The respiratory system involves the lungs, diaphragm, respiratory center in the brain, and respiratory muscles to maintain the normal breathing system. Disruption in the normal respiratory mechanism caused by different pathological or mechanical conditions results in severe hypoxia and buildup of CO2 which can lead to arrest if not timely addressed.

Therefore, it is essential to promptly recognize respiratory distress, apply first aid measures, immediately initiate CPR, and address the underlying cause to improve survival chances and minimize long-term consequences.


Recognizing Respiratory Distress and Its Progression to Arrest

Respiratory distress is the condition of difficulty in breathing, which can result from various medical conditions or emergencies. It can progress to respiratory arrest if the respiratory rate decreases, the complete absence of breathing, or loss of consciousness, and it can also lead to cardiac arrest.


Identification of respiratory distress as a precursor to respiratory arrest

It is crucial to recognize the signs of respiratory distress for timely intervention and to prevent respiratory arrest. These signs include

  • Increased breathing rate (tachypnea)
  • Shallow or difficult breathing
  • Nose flaring
  • Neck and chest muscles stretching
  • Cyanosis
  • Decreased oxygen level


Increased Breathing Rate (Tachypnea)

Recognizing an accelerated breathing rate, known as tachypnea, is a key marker of respiratory distress. Monitoring and assessing changes in the normal breathing rhythm can provide valuable insights into the functioning of the respiratory system.


Shallow or Difficult Breathing

Observing alterations in the depth or ease of breathing is another critical indicator. Shallow breathing or noticeable difficulty in taking breaths can signal underlying respiratory issues, signaling the need for immediate attention.


Nose Flaring

The widening of the nostrils, often referred to as nose flaring, can be indicative of the body's attempt to facilitate increased airflow. This visible sign can be an early warning of respiratory distress and may prompt further investigation.


Neck and Chest Muscles Stretching

Straining or noticeable stretching of the muscles in the neck and chest during breathing can be a visible manifestation of the body's effort to enhance respiratory function. Identifying such physical cues is crucial for early intervention.



Cyanosis, characterized by a bluish discoloration of the skin and mucous membranes, is a serious indicator of inadequate oxygenation. Recognizing this visible change alerts caregivers to the urgency of the situation, prompting swift action to address the underlying respiratory issues.


Decreased Oxygen Level

Monitoring oxygen levels is a crucial aspect of identifying respiratory distress. Measuring and recognizing a decrease in oxygen saturation levels through pulse oximetry provides quantitative data to support the clinical assessment of respiratory function.


How can one differentiate between respiratory distress and other conditions with similar symptoms?

One can differentiate between respiratory distress and other conditions by understanding all these signs and noting the associated symptoms like fever, coughing, fatigue, and changes in weight. It is vital to distinguish respiratory distress from other medical emergencies because the treatment varies for each cause.

Cardiac emergencies typically present with severe chest pain and breathing difficulties; anaphylaxis involves breathing challenges along with facial and throat swelling due to allergies, while overdoses and metabolic disturbances can cause breathing difficulties and rapid breathing.

Blood Pressure Category
Systolic (Upper)
Diastolic (Lower)
Health Risks
Less than 120 mm Hg
and Less than 80 mm Hg
Low risk of heart disease or stroke
Maintain healthy lifestyle (diet, exercise, no smoking)
120-129 mm Hg
and Less than 80 mm Hg
Doubled risk of cardiovascular complications
Make lifestyle changes (lose weight if overweight, increase physical activity, limit alcohol)
Hypertension Stage 1
130-139 mm Hg
or 80-89 mm Hg
Increased risk of heart attack, stroke, kidney disease
Lifestyle changes and potentially medication under doctor's guidance
Hypertension Stage 2
140 mm Hg or Higher
or 90 mm Hg or Higher
High risk; can lead to heart failure, vision loss, dementia
Medication required in addition to lifestyle changes as recommended by doctor
Hypertensive Crisis
Higher than 180 mm Hg
nd/or Higher than 120 mm Hg
Immediate danger of life-threatening complications
Seek emergency medical care immediately
Cardiac Arrest
Heart Attack
Sudden loss of heart function, leading to collapse
Blockage in a coronary artery, affecting blood flow to the heart muscle
Interruption of blood flow to the brain, leading to brain damage
Main Cause
Electrical malfunction of the heart
Blockage in coronary arteries
Blockage or rupture of blood vessels in the brain
Circulation Affected
Entire body
Heart muscle
Brain tissue
105Sudden collapse, unconsciousness, no pulse
Chest pain or discomfort, shortness of breath
Sudden numbness or weakness, confusion, trouble speaking or understanding speech/73
Emergency Response
Immediate CPR and defibrillation
Activate emergency medical services, chew aspirin
Activate emergency medical services, FAST assessment (Face, Arms, Speech, Time)
CPR, defibrillation
Thrombolytic therapy, angioplasty, stenting
Thrombolytic therapy, clot retrieval,
Long-term Management
Implantable cardioverter-defibrillator (ICD), medication management
Medication management, lifestyle changes, cardiac rehabilitation
Medication, rehabilitation, lifestyle changes
Dependent on prompt CPR and defibrillation, underlying health conditions
Dependent on extent of heart muscle damage, effectiveness of intervention
Dependent on severity of brain damage, rehabilitation progress
Risk Factors
Previous heart conditions, arrhythmias, electrolyte imbalances
Atherosclerosis, high cholesterol, hypertension, smoking, diabetes
Hypertension, diabetes, smoking, high cholesterol, atrial fibrillation

Causes of Respiratory Arrest

Respiratory arrest, the cessation of breathing, can arise from a variety of factors, each posing a threat to the proper functioning of the respiratory system. Understanding the diverse causes of respiratory arrest is crucial for effective management and intervention. Some common causes include:

  1. Obstruction of the airways
  2. Neurological disorder
  3. Respiratory system diseases
  4. Cardiovascular causes
  5. Metabolic Disorders
  6. Infections
  7. Trauma
  8. Toxic exposures
  9. Systematic conditions


1. Obstruction of the airways (choking)

Airway obstruction, or choking, is a perilous cause of respiratory arrest. This occurs when inhaled objects, such as food particles or toys, obstruct the respiratory tract. This obstruction induces breathing discomfort and airway swelling, ultimately leading to respiratory arrest. Swift intervention, such as the Heimlich maneuver, is critical to dislodge the obstruction and restore normal breathing.


2. Neurological disorder

Respiratory arrest can ensue from various neurological disorders that disrupt the intricate control of breathing by the brain. Brain damage, strokes, depression, and the use of sedative drugs can compromise the respiratory center's functionality, leading to a breakdown in the respiratory process.


3. Respiratory system diseases

Conditions like severe asthma, emphysema, and chronic bronchitis are significant contributors to respiratory arrest. These diseases impede lung airflow, diminishing the effectiveness of breathing and culminating in respiratory distress that may progress to respiratory arrest if not promptly addressed.


4. Cardiovascular causes

Heart failure and abnormal heart rhythms (arrhythmia) present cardiovascular causes that can trigger respiratory arrest. These conditions impact blood circulation, compromising the delivery of oxygen to tissues and contributing to respiratory failure.


5. Metabolic Disorders

Severe disturbances in the body's acid-base balance and abnormal levels of electrolytes, such as potassium and sodium, can adversely affect the respiratory muscles. The resulting muscle dysfunction can lead to respiratory arrest as the body struggles to maintain proper respiratory function.


6. Infections

Respiratory arrest may result from lung infections that severely compromise oxygen exchange. Conditions such as pneumonia can lead to deoxygenated blood and exacerbate respiratory failure, emphasizing the importance of timely medical intervention.


7. Trauma

Trauma, particularly chest trauma involving fractured ribs, punctured lungs, or spinal cord injuries, can disrupt signals to respiratory muscles. Trauma-induced respiratory failure underscores the necessity of prompt medical attention and comprehensive care for associated injuries.


8. Toxic Exposures

Respiratory arrest can be precipitated by toxic exposures, including poisoning or drug overdoses. Opioids, in particular, depress the brain's respiratory center, leading to a cessation of breathing. Timely administration of antidotes and supportive measures is crucial for addressing toxic-induced respiratory failure.


9. Systematic conditions

Hypoxia, characterized by inadequate oxygen in the bloodstream, poses a significant risk of respiratory arrest. Additionally, hyperthermia, or extremely high body temperature, can lead to a breakdown in respiratory function, emphasizing the interconnectedness of systemic conditions and respiratory distress. Vigilant monitoring and intervention are vital to prevent progression to respiratory arrest in these cases.


Emergency Management of Respiratory Arrest

Respiratory arrest requires immediate intervention. Some critical steps of emergency management are given below:

  1. Check out a person's response by tapping the person or shouting loudly.
  2. Open the victim’s airway by tilting his head backward and lifting the chin up
  3. Check the breathing signs by looking, listening, and feeling. If the person is not breathing, then check his pulse.
  4. Give the person rescue breath by pinching his nose shut and covering his mouth with yours. Give him a breath for 1 second and check whether his chest rises or not.
  5. Give cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) by compressing the chest at a rate of 100–120 compressions per minute.
  6. Monitor the breathing of a person and call a medical professional if the situation is out of control.

Here is the detailed first aid intervention that can save the life of a person affected from respiratory arrest:


The BLS survey

Basic Life Support, primarily focused on CPR and early defibrillation, is an initial assessment procedure in emergency care. While waiting for emergency assistance, bystanders should keep the victim's airway open, administer rescue breaths, and start chest compressions. Let’s discuss the basic steps BLS survey:

  • Scene Safety: Your safety, the victim, and any bystanders should be your top priority before approaching the victim. Remember, taking a moment to assess the situation could prevent further harm.
  • Assess responses: Gently tap the person by shouting, “Are you okay?” check the signs of response, his movement, and breathing sounds.
  • Activate Emergency Response: If the person does not respond and breathes normally, immediately call emergency service.
  • Check for Breathing: Look, listen, and observe if the person usually breathes.
  • CPR: Initiate CPR if the person does not breathe naturally by starting chest compressions. Compress the chest 2 inches deep at 100-120 compressions per minute. Give two rescue breaths after 30 compressions.
  • Rescue Breathe: Give rescue breathing by covering his mouth with yours. Make sure to give each rescue breath for at least 1 second, and dont forget to keep an eye on the chest movement.
  • Automated External Defibrillator: If AED is available, then follow the device prompts. Attach the AED pad to the person’s chest and follow the instructions.
  • Continue CPR until help arrives: Keep administering CPR until the emergency medical services arrive. Also, make sure to perform the CPR technique correctly and consistently.


The ACLS survey

It is a secondary and advanced survey to rescue the person. If things are getting out of hand, and rescue breathing and CPR don't work, do an ACLS survey. Let's discuss the steps in detail:

  • Airway management: Open the airway of the patient by using head-tilt and chin-lift technique.
  • Breathing Assessment: Assess the patient's breathing. If the patient is not breathing, provide positive ventilation with a bag-mask device.
  • Circulation assessment: Check the patient's pulse. If there is no pulse, initiate chest compressions and ventilation in a ratio of 30 compressions and two ventilations for adult patients.
  • Monitor and Defibrillation: Connect a cardiac monitor to evaluate the heart rhythm of the patient. Deliver a shock using an automated external defibrillator (AED) or manual defibrillator if a shockable rhythm is detected.
  • Medication Administration: Treat the underlying cause of the respiratory arrest by giving the appropriate medication, such as epinephrine.
  • Advanced Airway Management: Consider advanced airway management, such as endotracheal intubation, if indicated.
  • Post-Resuscitation Care: Provide post-resuscitation care, including monitoring, optimizing ventilation and oxygenation, and addressing the underlying cause of the arrest.

Get CPR Certified in Minutes for as low as $19.95

Join thousands of professionals that have been certified online with us
100% Online Certification
Fast & Convenient
Instant Certification Card
Nationally Accepted
Get Started
5 star
from 259,205 reviews


Tailored for the community and workplace
Offer Expires:
Comprehensive CPR Training Across All Ages
Choking response training
Recovery position technique course

Blood Pressure Chart by Age

Age Group
Min Systolic/Diastolic
Normal Range
Max Systolic/Diastolic
1-12 months
Consult pediatrician if outside normal range. Cuff sizing is critical.
1-5 years
High BP in children may indicate underlying condition. Lifestyle factors.
6-13 years
Obesity, family history increase risk. Promote healthy habits early.
14-19 years
Adolescent rise normal. Rule out secondary causes if elevated.
20-24 years
Stressors, medications may impact. Start monitoring if high-normal.
25-29 years
Dietary changes, exercise for elevated readings. Birth control effects.
30-39 years
110/77 - 111/78
122/81 - 123/82
134/85 - 135/86
Monitor closely if readings increasing with age.
40-49 years
112/79 - 115/80
125/83 - 127/84
137/87 - 139/88
Lifestyle changes proven to reduce hypertension risk.
50-64 years
116/81 - 121/83
129/85 - 134/87
142/89 - 147/91
White coat effect common. Home monitoring advised.
65+ years
130+ Systolic Risk
Frailty, medications, conditions factored in management.

Post-Emergency Care and Complications of Respiratory Arrest

Post-emergency care following respiratory arrest is crucial for ensuring the patient's recovery and preventing potential complications. Here are short term and long term complications and emergency care associated with respiratory arrest:


Short-term complications and emergency care

Respiratory arrest can lead to short-term complications like hypoxia and risk of brain damage and long-term consequences such as neurological impairments. Following resuscitation, monitoring is crucial for possible side effects such as aspiration and hypoxia-related issues. Vital organs, such as the brain and heart, may be severely harmed by hypoxia, highlighting the critical urgency of prompt action. Ongoing care is crucial for individuals who have experienced respiratory arrest to manage post-resuscitation issues and improve overall outcomes.


Long-term complications and emergency care

The long-term effects of respiratory arrest include neurological abnormalities, such as memory loss and cognitive impairment from oxygen deprivation. To treat possible side effects such as post-anoxic encephalopathy, seizures, and psychiatric effects, ongoing care is essential for those who have suffered respiratory arrest; rehabilitation and continued assistance are critical to maximizing neurological recovery and improving the overall quality of life.


Long-Term Management and Rehabilitation

After recovering from respiratory arrest, patients undergo comprehensive rehabilitation as part of their therapy. Physical, occupational, and respiratory therapies are essential to improve mobility, functioning, and respiratory strength. To achieve a complete recovery, patients and caregivers must modify their lifestyles, make sure that their medications are taken as prescribed, and arrange for regular checkups. It is easier to take preventative action against similar situations in the future when healthcare professionals collaborate. Proactive health management, learning about warning signs and emergency procedures, and maintaining a healthy lifestyle empower patients and caregivers, enhancing resilience and reducing the risk of recurrence.


Prevention and Risk Factors of Respiratory Arrest

Recognizing the factors that can lead to respiratory arrest, including lifestyle choices, medical conditions, and environmental influences, is imperative for risk reduction. Chronic diseases, adverse effects of medications, and substance addiction are all recognized as potential contributors to the risk of respiratory arrest.

Effective prevention of respiratory arrest necessitates a comprehensive understanding and proactive management of the underlying risk factors associated with the interruption of breathing. Taking proactive steps and making lifestyle adjustments become pivotal in diminishing the chances of respiratory distress progressing to respiratory arrest. Here are the prevention tips on how to avoid respiratory arrest:


Prevention Strategies

  1. Respiratory Health Education: Educate individuals on maintaining respiratory health through practices such as smoking cessation, proper breathing techniques, and awareness of environmental factors impacting respiratory function.
  2. Regular Health Check-ups: Encourage routine medical check-ups for early detection and management of conditions contributing to respiratory distress.
  3. Vaccinations: Promote immunizations, especially for influenza and pneumonia, to prevent respiratory infections and complications.
  4. Avoidance of Respiratory Irritants: Advocate for minimizing exposure to pollutants, allergens, and occupational respiratory irritants.
  5. Proper Medication Management: Ensure adherence to prescribed medications, especially for chronic respiratory conditions, to maintain optimal respiratory function.
  6. Safety Measures: Implement safety practices to minimize the risk of trauma-induced respiratory arrest, including the use of protective gear in specific environments.
  7. Emergency Response Training: Provide basic life support (BLS) and cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) training to enhance community response in emergencies.


Prioritizing these preventive strategies and understanding the key risk factors can significantly reduce the incidence of respiratory arrest and enhance overall respiratory health.