Acute respiratory failure from abused substances

J Intensive Care Med. 2004 Jul-Aug;19(4):183-93. doi: 10.1177/0885066604263918.


Acute respiratory failure is a common complication of drug abuse. It is more likely to develop in the setting of chronic lung disease or debility in those with limited respiratory reserve. Drugs may acutely precipitate respiratory failure by compromising respiratory pump function and/or by causing pulmonary pathology. Polysubstance overdoses are common, and clinicians should anticipate complications related to multiple drugs. Impairment of respiratory pump function may develop from central nervous system (CNS) depression (suppression of the medulla oblongata, stroke or seizures) or respiratory muscle fatigue (increased respiratory workload, metabolic acidosis). Drug-related respiratory pathology may result from parenchymal (aspiration-related events, pulmonary edema, hemorrhage, pneumothorax, infectious and non-infectious pneumonitides), airway (bronchospasm and hemorrhage), or pulmonary vascular insults (endovascular infections, hemorrhage, and vasoconstrictive events). Alcohol, cocaine, amphetamines, opiates, and benzodiazepines are the most commonly abused drugs that may induce events leading to acute respiratory failure. While decontamination and aggressive supportive measures are indicated, specific therapies to correct seizures, metabolic acidosis, pneumothorax, infections, bronchospasm, and agitation should be considered. Drug-related respiratory failure when due to CNS depression alone may portend well, but in patients with drug-related significant pulmonary pathology, a protracted course of illness may be anticipated.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Acute Disease
  • Administration, Inhalation
  • Alcoholism / complications
  • Amphetamines / poisoning
  • Benzodiazepines / poisoning
  • Bronchial Spasm / etiology
  • Cannabis / poisoning
  • Cocaine / poisoning
  • Critical Care / methods
  • Humans
  • Narcotics / poisoning
  • Pneumonia / etiology
  • Pneumothorax / etiology
  • Pulmonary Edema / etiology
  • Respiratory Distress Syndrome / etiology
  • Respiratory Insufficiency / etiology*
  • Respiratory Insufficiency / physiopathology
  • Respiratory Physiological Phenomena / drug effects
  • Respiratory Tract Infections / etiology
  • Solvents / poisoning
  • Substance-Related Disorders / complications*


  • Amphetamines
  • Narcotics
  • Solvents
  • Benzodiazepines
  • Cocaine