3 Guidelines for Acute Respiratory Failure and Airway Protection


The COVID-19 pandemic has made acute respiratory distress one of the most common emergencies first responders face. Without prompt intervention, it can lead to respiratory failure and life-threatening complications. One 2016 study found that 34 percent of respiratory failure sufferers had died within a year of their diagnosis. As the pandemic rips through communities, you must do everything you can to mitigate its effects. These guidelines can help you offer appropriate airway protection to treat and ideally prevent acute respiratory failure. 


Know the Risk Factors

The pandemic has changed a great deal. Now, the biggest risk factor for acute respiratory distress is simply going out in public, because doing so increases the odds of catching COVID. Even during the pandemic, though, certain groups have faced a higher risk of severe COVID illness. They include people with diabetes, those with a body mass index (BMI) in excess of 40, geriatrics, newborns, and people with respiratory diseases. 


In addition to the risks posed by COVID, some other risk factors for acute respiratory distress include: 

  • Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)
  • A history of smoking
  • Sepsis
  • Pneumonia 
  • Dementia 


Most patients are already hospitalized, so hospitalization may be considered a risk factor. 


Know the Warning Signs 

Identifying a patient who is at risk of respiratory failure and treating them early in the crisis is key to saving their life and preventing long-term pulmonary complications. Watch for these signs: 

  • Loss of consciousness 
  • Confusion
  • Gasping for air
  • Blue tint to the lips, tongue, or fingers
  • Sweating
  • Hypercapnia 
  • Rapid heart rate or heart arrhythmias
  • Panic
  • Shallow breathing


Promptly Intervene

These guidelines can help you promptly and effectively treat patients who are experiencing acute respiratory failure: 


Administer Oxygen 

Begin by administering supplemental oxygen. In most cases you can do this through a nasal cannula. In some cases you may need to intubate the patient. Be sure to continue to monitor vital signs and respiration to ensure the patient is getting sufficient oxygen. 


Suction the Patient If Necessary 

Many patients experiencing either respiratory distress or respiratory failure have other underlying conditions, physical injuries, or an airway obstruction. If the patient cannot clear their own airway, or airway secretions interfere with breathing, suction the patient. 


Treat the Patient Where You Find Them 

Prompt treatment can save lives, so don’t delay treatment by moving the patient. You should be ready to go with portable suction and oxygen. During the COVID crisis, this is even more important. This is because moving the patient may expose more people to a potentially lethal virus. Many interventions create aerosolized particles that more effectively transmit the coronavirus, so moving the patient while treating them is particularly risky. 


Avoid Transmitting COVID-19 

You must treat every patient as if they are COVID-positive, even with a negative test. No test is fully reliable, and the cost of spreading the virus to vulnerable people in hospital and emergency settings is extraordinarily high. To reduce the risk of spread: 

  • Suction patients away from others—if you can install a partition to prevent the spread of aerosolized particles, you may save lives
  • Ask all patients to wear masks
  • Always wear properly fitted personal protective equipment
  • Practice aggressive handwashing before and after touching patients or equipment
  • Sterilize all equipment according to the manufacturer’s specifications
  • Store equipment in a secure, sealed location to reduce the risk of contaminating it


Identify the Underlying Cause

Treatment should not be limited to managing the immediate crisis. It’s important to identify the underlying cause so you can provide ongoing treatment. Many patients will need ongoing rehabilitative care to prolong their life and reduce the risk of subsequent medical emergencies. 


For help choosing the right portable machine for this crisis and beyond, download our free guide, The Ultimate Guide to Purchasing a Portable Emergency Suction Device