What Is Respiratory Depression?

Respiratory depression, medically known as hypoventilation is a breathing disorder characterized by slow and ineffective breathing. During a normal breathing cycle, you inhale O2 (oxygen) into your lungs while your blood carries the oxygen around your body, delivering it to your tissues. 

Your blood then takes the CO2, (carbon dioxide) a waste product, back to your lungs. The carbon dioxide exits your body when you exhale.

During the respiratory depression, the body can’t adequately remove carbon dioxide and this is crucial since it can lead to poor use of oxygen by lungs. The result is a higher level of carbon dioxide and too little oxygen available to the body.

NB: Hypoventilation is different from hyperventilation. Hyperventilation is when you breathe too quickly, lowering levels of cO2 in the blood.

Symptoms of Hypoventilation vary. Mild or moderate symptoms may include: tiredness, daytime sleepiness, shortness of breath, slow and shallow breathing, depression, etc

Causes Of Respiratory Depression

Causes of Respiratory Depression vary depending on the individual’s life. People who consume a lot of chemicals are likely to suffer it. Some common causes of Respiratory Depression include: 

  • opiate or opioid (morphine, tramadol, heroinfentanyl) overdose.
  • postoperative (after surgery) opioid-induced or anesthetic related respiratory depression.
  • stroke that affects the lower brain stem.
  • barbiturate overdose.
  • ethanol overdose or poisoning.
  • central sleep apnea
  • congenital (present at birth) central hypoventilation syndrome (CCHS)
  • severely elevated blood ammonia as seen in liver failure and cirrhosis

Also, Respiratory Depression (Hypoventilation) can come about when:

  • A medical condition such as stroke affects the brainstem or,
  • Hypocapnia, which stimulates hypoventilation,
  • Medication or drugs, when taken accidentally or intentionally in overdose. Opioids and benzodiazepines are also known to cause respiratory depression. These opioids include pharmaceuticals like Oxycodone and benzodiazepines like alprazolam.
  • Voluntary breath-holding or under breathing, for example, hypoventilation training or Buteyko.
  • Chronic mountain sickness, a mechanism to conserve energy.

Again, other possible causes of Respiratory Depression (hypoventilation) are:

. neuromuscular diseases, that brings about the weakening of muscles that control breathing,

. chest wall deformities that deal with the ability to inhale and exhale properly and,

. severe obesity that causes the body to work harder to breathe.

It should be noted that sedative medications, narcotic pain medications, and substances that slow brain function may cause Respiratory Depression. For example, too much intake of alcohol and certain illegal drugs, are known to increase the risk of Respiratory Depression.

To conclude, the continuous use of stimulant addictive drugs like cocaineblack tar heroinMDMA pillsCrystal meth, or Liquid LSD may cause brain injury that interferes with the brain’s ability to control basic functions like breathing.

How Can Respiratory Depression Be Prevented?

Even though most respiratory depression cases are unpreventable, some cases can, however, be prevented whether caused by accident or unforeseen diseases. Below are common ways to reduce the chances and having Respiratory Depression (Hypoventilation).

  • Firstly, avoiding, or taking extra precautions when using sedative medications,
  • Keeping an eye on children while taking prescribed medications being it CodeineAdderallRitalin, and Oxycodone.
  • Also, it is advisable to avoid excessive alcohol consumption.
  • And taking extra precautions when using narcotic medications.

Signs And Symptoms Of Respiratory Depression.

Since the signs and symptoms of Respiratory Depression depend mostly on the severity of the case, it is always so evident though it differs. Some signs may include:


  • headache
  • shallow, slow breathing with little noticeable chest movement
  • vomiting
  • decreased breathing sounds and a distinct whistling or crackling sound while breathing
  • high or low blood pressure
  • reduced or pinpoint pupils
  • tremors


And if all these signs and symptoms are left untreated, severe respiratory depression can result in the following:

Important Facts About Respiratory Depression(Hypoventilation)

Again, Respiratory stimulants like nikethamide were traditionally used to counteract respiratory depression from the Central Nervous System (CNS) depressant overdose which offered limited effectiveness. So BIMU8 was created though it’s being investigated which seems to be significantly more effective for fighting the respiratory depression caused by opiates.

Also, The treatment options for respiratory depression depends so much on the severity of the case. So a person suffering from hypoventilation as a result of the consumption of some chemical foods and another as a result of too much consumption of CocaineCrystal methHeroin, and other narcotic drugs will not receive the same treatment since narcotic drugs are likely to cause Respiratory Depression (hypoventilation).

Furthermore,  Respiratory Depression can be treated by carrying out a series of diagnoses, using therapies, and some medication. Examples include:

  • oxygen therapy
  • fluid therapy, either intravenously or orally administered
  • mechanical ventilation
  • if caused by overdose, detoxification, often using medications that work against the effects of opioids, such as naloxone, methadone, and Suboxone
  • continuous positive airway pressure, CPAP, or BiPAP, machines.

And if Respiratory Depression is suspected, or if the above typical signs and symptoms occur, it’s advisable to seek medical attention immediately. It is important to keep the person with the above signs and symptoms alert and moving as much as possible.

Side Effects Of Respiratory Depression.

Once Respiratory Depression is left untreated, it can cause life-threatening complications, including death. So following your treatment plan can prevent complications from developing.

Also, Respiratory depression that comes about as a result of a drug overdose can lead to respiratory arrest. This is when breathing completely stops, and is so fatal.

Again, continuous occurrence of hypoventilation can also cause pulmonary hypertension, which can cause right-sided heart failure.

Respiratory Depression (Hypoventilation) can also interfere with one’s quality of life. Early identification and treatment may help your body maintain a healthy level of oxygen and carbon dioxide and prevent complications.