Respiratory Failure Caused by Guillain-Barre Syndrome Illustration

Respiratory Failure Caused by Guillain-Barre Syndrome (2024)

by | Updated: Mar 14, 2024

Guillain-Barre Syndrome (GBS) is a disorder in which the body’s immune system attacks the nerves, which can cause significant weakness and even paralysis.

In some cases, it can even lead to respiratory failure.

This article breaks down the different types of respiratory failure that can be caused by Guillain-Barre Syndrome, as well as the treatment options available.

What Type of Respiratory Failure is Caused by Guillain-Barre Syndrome?

The most common type of respiratory failure associated with Guillain-Barre Syndrome is known as neuromuscular respiratory failure. This occurs when the muscles and nerves responsible for breathing are weakened or paralyzed. The result is that the lungs are unable to expand and contract properly, which reduces the amount of oxygen that is able to enter the bloodstream.

Respiratory Failure Caused by Guillain-Barre Syndrome Illustration Vector


The treatment for neuromuscular respiratory failure caused by Guillain-Barre Syndrome typically involves mechanical ventilation.

This is a process in which a machine is used to assist with the breathing process.

In some cases, patients may also require plasmapheresis. This is a treatment in which the plasma from the blood is removed and replaced with special solutions. This can help to reduce the severity of symptoms.

What is Respiratory Failure?

Respiratory failure occurs when the lungs are unable to adequately exchange oxygen and carbon dioxide. This can be due to a variety of factors, including hypoxemia or hypercapnia.

Signs and Symptoms

The most common signs and symptoms of respiratory failure include:

  • Shortness of breath
  • Hypoxemia
  • Hypercapnia
  • Fatigue
  • Anxiety
  • Confusion
  • Restlessness
  • Wheezing

Note: If you experience any of these symptoms, it’s important to seek medical help immediately, as respiratory failure can be a life-threatening condition.

What is Guillain-Barre Syndrome?

Guillain-Barre Syndrome is a rare disorder in which the body’s immune system attacks its own nerves. This can result in weakness, tingling, and even paralysis. In some cases, it can also lead to respiratory failure.

There are two types of Guillain-Barre Syndrome: acute inflammatory demyelinating polyneuropathy (AIDP) and acute motor axonal neuropathy (AMAN). AIDP is the most common type, while AMAN is more common in children.

Risk Factors

Guillain-Barre Syndrome can occur at any age, but it is most common in adults between the ages of 40 and 60. It is also more common in men than women.

There are a variety of risk factors that may increase your chance of developing Guillain-Barre Syndrome, including:

  • Previous infection with certain viruses or bacteria, such as Epstein-Barr virus, Cytomegalovirus, or Campylobacter
  • Exposure to certain toxins, such as pesticides
  • Autoimmune disorders, such as rheumatoid arthritis or lupus
  • Surgery

Note: The disorder is also more common in people from certain geographic regions, such as North America, Central America, and Asia.

Signs and Symptoms

The most common signs and symptoms of Guillain-Barre Syndrome include:

  • Weakness
  • Tingling
  • Numbness
  • Fatigue
  • Paralysis
  • Tachycardia
  • Hypertension

Note: Respiratory failure is also a potential complication of Guillain-Barre Syndrome that results from neuromuscular paralysis.

FAQs About Respiratory Failure and Guillain-Barre Syndrome

Does Guillain-Barré Syndrome Affect the Lungs?

Yes, Guillain-Barré Syndrome (GBS) can affect the lungs indirectly. GBS is a disorder where the body’s immune system attacks the nerves. It can lead to muscle weakness and paralysis.

When this affects the muscles involved in breathing, individuals may experience respiratory failure, necessitating mechanical ventilation to support breathing.

What are the Complications of Guillain-Barré Syndrome?

The complications of Guillain-Barré Syndrome can range from mild to severe and may include respiratory failure due to muscle weakness and paralysis, blood clots due to immobility, persistent fatigue and muscle weakness, pain, and numbness.

Additionally, patients may experience difficulty with bladder control and bowel function. Some people might also face complications like high or low blood pressure and irregular heart rate.

What is the Most Serious Complication of Guillain-Barré Syndrome?

The most serious complication of Guillain-Barré Syndrome can be respiratory failure due to paralysis of the respiratory muscles, leading to an inability to breathe independently.

This condition is life-threatening and requires immediate medical intervention, often involving mechanical ventilation to support breathing.

Additionally, other serious complications can include blood infections, blood clots, and severe lingering fatigue and weakness.

What is the Prognosis for Guillain-Barré Syndrome?

The prognosis for Guillain-Barré Syndrome varies among individuals. Many people with GBS experience good recovery, with approximately 70% of patients able to walk independently six months after diagnosis.

However, some may experience lingering effects such as fatigue, muscle weakness, or numbness.

Around 5-10% of individuals may have very delayed and incomplete recovery, experiencing significant disability. The mortality rate is estimated to be around 4-7%.

How to Prevent Guillain-Barré Syndrome?

There are no known ways to prevent Guillain-Barré Syndrome as the exact cause of the condition is not fully understood.

It is thought to be triggered by an inappropriate immune response to an infection or, in rare cases, vaccination, but more research is needed to confirm these triggers and develop prevention strategies.

What are the Types of Respiratory Failure?

There are two main types of respiratory failure: Type 1, or hypoxemic respiratory failure, is characterized by low levels of oxygen in the blood but normal or low levels of carbon dioxide.

It is often caused by conditions affecting the lungs, like pneumonia or acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS).

Type 2, or hypercapnic respiratory failure, is characterized by high levels of carbon dioxide in the blood due to inadequate ventilation, often caused by conditions affecting the respiratory muscles, like Guillain-Barré Syndrome or amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS).

How is Respiratory Failure Treated?

Treatment for respiratory failure depends on its cause, severity, and type. In general, the goal is to correct the levels of oxygen and carbon dioxide in the blood.

Treatments may include oxygen therapy, mechanical ventilation, or non-invasive positive pressure ventilation to support breathing.

Medications to treat the underlying cause, reduce inflammation, or clear secretions might also be administered. In severe cases, extracorporeal membrane oxygenation (ECMO) may be used to provide more intensive support.

Is Guillain-Barré Syndrome Fatal?

Guillain-Barré Syndrome can be life-threatening, and the mortality rate is estimated to be around 4-7%.

The most serious complications usually arise from respiratory failure, which can be fatal if not treated promptly and effectively.

However, with early diagnosis, appropriate treatment, and supportive care, many people with Guillain-Barré Syndrome can recover, although the extent of recovery may vary.

What is the Recovery Time for Guillain-Barré Syndrome?

The recovery time for Guillain-Barré Syndrome varies widely among individuals. Some people may start to recover within a few weeks, while others may take several months or even years.

Approximately 70% of patients are able to walk independently six months after diagnosis, and around 80% of patients experience full recovery within a year.

However, some individuals might experience long-term or even permanent impairments such as weakness, numbness, fatigue, and pain.

The severity of the initial illness and the degree of early improvement are important predictors of the long-term outcome.

Related: Guillain Barré Syndrome Case Study: Diagnosis & Treatment

Final Thoughts

Guillain-Barre Syndrome can cause a variety of respiratory problems, including neuromuscular respiratory failure. The most common treatment method typically involves the use of mechanical ventilation.

If you or someone you know has experienced any of the signs or symptoms associated with Guillain-Barre Syndrome, it’s important to seek medical help immediately.

Early diagnosis and treatment are essential for the best possible outcome.

John Landry, BS, RRT

Written by:

John Landry, BS, RRT

John Landry is a registered respiratory therapist from Memphis, TN, and has a bachelor's degree in kinesiology. He enjoys using evidence-based research to help others breathe easier and live a healthier life.


  • Nguyen TP, Taylor RS. Guillain-Barre Syndrome. [Updated 2023 Feb 7]. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2023.
  • Mirabile VS, Shebl E, Sankari A, et al. Respiratory Failure. [Updated 2023 Jun 11]. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2023.

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