Far and away the biggest causes of respiratory failure are bronchitis and emphysema. In both cases the tubes leading to the inside of the lung get blocked with excess mucus; the delicate lining of the bronchii which transports mucus away is damaged and so the mucus remains where it is. Finally, when the air gets down deep into the lungs it can’t enter the blood easily.

The main cause of bronchitis and emphysema is smoking. All smokers eventually get a certain amount of bronchitis, although only a small proportion get lull-blown respiratory failure.

The chief symptom of respiratory failure is progressive breathlessness. Usually this comes on slowly. At first the shortness of breath is only slight, associated with exertion, but gradually preventing the patient from undertaking normal day-to-day activities. The shortness of breath increases until eventually the person is breathless, even at rest.

There are two varieties of respiratory failure, depending upon how the control mechanism for breathing copes with the problem. The type which concerns us here is when the level of carbon dioxide in the body rises greatly. When this happens the patient becomes blue around the mouth, lips and tongue, and has a headache; there may also be restlessness, anxiety, delirium and drowsiness.

Obviously illness like this must be treated by a doctor, possibly even in hospital. Oxygen therapy may help, but for complex physiological reasons it isn’t always possible to give large quantities of extra oxygen. Inhaled steroids and drugs to open up the airways may sometimes be helpful in bronchitis; physiotherapy to help clear mucus from the lungs is often useful.

Bronchitis and emphysema can place a great strain on the heart; added to this, the tobacco that causes the bronchitis also furs up the arteries of the heart, so patients with respiratory failure frequently have a degree of heart failure. Controlling the heart failure may help the respiratory failure.

In the long run there is little we can do to help those who have respiratory failure. It is so sad to see someone in this situation, knowing that it has almost always been caused by the patient himself … through smoking.

Self help

Respiratory failure can be prevented, and that means no smoking. And the sooner you give up, the longer your lungs are likely to last. Tobacco smoke contains carbon monoxide which also poisons the red cells and stops them carrying oxygen. In the long-term, carbon monoxide also causes furring up of the arteries in the heart.

If you have respiratory failure you can also help yourself by keeping as relaxed as possible. The more anxious you are the more tense your muscles will become, and the more you tense your muscles the more oxygen you use up and the more carbon dioxide you create.

Complementary treatment

If an attack of bronchitis or emphysema comes on, get plenty of bed rest, with a hot water bottle on your chest. Steam inhalations are also helpful to loosen the phlegm. Avoid damp, cold and dust. There are a number of homoeopathic treatments for bronchitis and emphysema – including aconite, belladonna, kali bichrom or Pulsatilla. You will need a full consultation to receive the most useful treatment.

Under the care of a registered practitioner, Vitamins E, A, C and D can be supplemented, and zinc can help. Extra iron is often recommended.

Oils of eucalyptus and hyssup are expectorant. Cloves and eucalyptus can he steeped and drunk as a tea, with lemon. Teatree and oregano oils are a good choice for the vaporiser.


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