Medically reviewed by Susan Russell, MD
Respiratory depression, also known as hypoventilation, refers to abnormally high levels of carbon dioxide in the blood due to shallow breathing. Hypoventilation can be a side effect of certain medications and drugs, such as opioids, benzodiazepines, and alcohol, as well as various neuromuscular disorders. If left untreated, respiratory depression can lead to fatal complications.
This article will go over everything you need to know about respiratory depression, including symptoms, causes, treatment options, and more.
Symptoms: Respiratory Depression and Breathing Effects
The primary symptom of respiratory depression is labored, shallow, and/or slow breathing. Normally, we breathe in oxygen through our lungs and exhale carbon dioxide as a waste product after our body has gotten the oxygen it needs. Hypoventilation makes it harder to breathe in deeply, leading to excess carbon dioxide in the blood.
In addition to shortness of breath, symptoms of respiratory depression may include:
Multiple nighttime wakings
Cyanosis (bluish and/or discolored skin)
Respiratory Depression vs. Hyperventilation
Hyperventilation is sometimes confused with respiratory depression because both conditions lead to shortness of breath. However, hyperventilation refers to rapid, deep breathing that leads to excess levels of oxygen and reduced levels of carbon dioxide in the blood. In addition to breathlessness, symptoms of hyperventilation include:
Drug-Related Respiratory Depression Causes
Many different medications and drugs that have a sedating or “depressive” effect on the central nervous system can lead to respiratory depression. This is especially true if you misuse drugs, take multiple drugs at once, and/or take them in excessively large doses.
Some of the drugs that can cause respiratory depression include:
Opioid painkillers, such as OxyContin (oxycodone) and Vicodin (hydrocodone)
Benzodiazepines, such as Valium (diazepam) and Xanax (alprazolam)
Barbiturates, such as Luminal (phenobarbital)
Narcotics, such as heroin
Nondrug Respiratory Depression Causes
Aside from drugs, other potential causes of respiratory depression include:
Chest wall deformities and injuries, such as those caused by fibrothorax or pneumonia
Obesity, which can lead to obesity-induced hypoventilation syndrome
Obstructive sleep apnea (OSA)
Respiratory Depression Diagnosis
To diagnose you with respiratory depression, your healthcare provider may perform imaging and lab tests, including:
Computed tomography (CT) scan
Arterial blood gas (ABG) tests to measure the amount of carbon dioxide and oxygen in your blood
Lung function tests
Hemoglobin and hematocrit blood tests
Does Respiratory Depression Require Hospitalization?
Mild cases of respiratory depression may cause relatively few symptoms or no symptoms at all. Sometimes, symptoms such as fatigue and shortness of breath develop gradually over time. These cases can often be treated at home or on an outpatient basis.
However, acute respiratory depression is a medical emergency and needs to be treated right away. If your oxygen levels are low enough (and/or your carbon dioxide levels are high enough), you may lose consciousness. Organ damage is possible without adequate treatment.
Treatments to Reverse Respiratory Depression Symptoms
Respiratory depression can often be treated with oxygen therapy. It may also be treated with:
Surgical treatment, such as a tracheostomy
Extracorporeal membrane oxygenation (ECMO), i.e., an artificial lung
Narcan, if the respiratory depression is caused by an overdose or opioid use
Depending on the cause of your symptoms, your healthcare provider may also recommend:
Lifestyle changes, such as weight loss
Pulmonary rehabilitation, which can help you develop more effective breathing techniques
Positional changes to help you breathe more deeply
Risks of Untreated Respiratory Depression
Untreated respiratory depression can lead to serious and even fatal health complications, such as:
Respiratory arrest, which happens when someone stops breathing entirely
Call 911 or go to the emergency room if you or someone you know is showing signs of having stopped breathing, such as:
Loss of consciousness
Respiratory depression, or hypoventilation, refers to excess amounts of carbon dioxide in the blood caused by slow, shallow breathing. Large doses of opioids, barbiturates, sedatives, benzodiazepines, drugs, and/or alcohol can cause hypoventilation. Other potential causes include neuromuscular disorders, chest wall deformities, lung problems, brain injuries, obesity, and sleep apnea.
Read the original article on Verywell Health.