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What is Respiratory Depression or Slow Breathing?

Medically reviewed by Jezreel Esguerra, MD · General Practitioner

Written by Fiel Tugade · Updated Mar 23, 2023

    What is Respiratory Depression or Slow Breathing?

    Nowadays, the rise in the number of people who are undergoing a tough time breathing is quite undeniable. While people may instantly assume it to be a COVID-19 symptom most especially during these trying times, it may also be other lines of lung complications like respiratory depression. However, not a lot of people have an idea what this syndrome is all about.

    So What is Respiratory Depression?

    “Respiratory depression” or “respiratory distress” refers to the conditions and problems revolving around the breathing capacity of a person. A specific type is known as the Acute Respiratory Distress Syndrome (ARDS). 

    Despite it being an acute kind, it is actually a life-threatening condition in which the lungs are unable to give enough oxygen to the body’s important organs. Some cases are due to the injury or infection within the lung area that poses more threat and trauma in the long run.

    Because of this, some patients diagnosed with ARDS are already confined in the hospital suffering from other existing illnesses and complications relating to the blockage of air pathways.

    Fluid from the lungs’ smallest blood arteries begins to spill down to the tiny air sacs (alveoli) where the oxygen exchange is taking place during the early stages of ARDS. From there, breathing becomes much more difficult when the lungs tend to shrink and stiffen.

    Hypoxemia occurs when the level of oxygen in the blood decreases and the body gets oxygen-depleted. This often leads to damages in the brain and other tissue parts, as well as organ failure.

    Signs and Symptoms of Respiratory Depression

    Patients with ARDS have the tendency to be breathing slower than usual as they are trying to catch up with breath shortness, which leads them to feel some discomfort and distress while doing so.

    Some of the known signs and symptoms that may be later on revealed are listed down below:

    Rapid breathing

    An increase in the number of breaths per minute may be an early consideration that indicates a person’s difficulty in breathing or inability to obtain sufficient oxygen levels.

    Change in color

    When a person isn’t getting enough oxygen, a pale or bluish color around the mouth, on the inside of the lips, or on the fingernails can appear.


    One method that can be noticed is the way the chest appears to sink just below the neck or under the breastbone, or both. This shows it attempts to get more air into the lungs.

    Nose flaring

    While breathing, the openings of the nose may expand widely, signaling that the person is having to work harder to breathe.


    Apart from all the sweat, the skin may also feel clammy and cool. This normally is experienced when breathing is faster than normal.

    Wheezing (noisy breathing)

    Each breath may produce a tight, whistling, or melodic sound, revealing that the air channels are narrower (tighter), making breathing more difficult.

    Change in body positioning

    A person may suddenly shift its body positioning to be able to take in deeper breaths. Some may try leaning forward or tilting their head up or even backwards.

    Causes and Other Risk Factors of Respiratory Depression

    There are quite a number of causes that could be related to ARDS but a few worth mentioning are as follows:

    • A near-drowning experience/event
    • Acute Pancreatitis
    • COVID-19
    • Drug overdose
    • Inhalation of toxic substances
    • Pneumonia
    • Reactions to blood transfusions
    • Sepsis
    • Severe Influenza
    • Trauma from experiencing upper extremity injuries (i.e., head, chest, lungs)


    When suspected to have respiratory depression, the doctor may run a couple of tests and assessments in order to determine the underlying reason and rule out alternative possibilities given the leading circumstances. 

    • Thorough physical examination
    • Series of blood tests
    • CT-scan
    • Chest X-ray
    • Echocardiogram 

    Key Takeaway

    Just like COVID-19 cases, ARDS is not something that is easily treated. It takes a lot of time and effort to be able to recover from such a diagnosis. It is more than ever essential to keep your lungs strong and be immune from any kinds of respiratory illnesses that may eventually lead you to unexplainable distress. 

    Learn more about Respiratory Health here


    Hello Health Group does not provide medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.

    Medically reviewed by

    Jezreel Esguerra, MD

    General Practitioner

    Written by Fiel Tugade · Updated Mar 23, 2023

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