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8 min read

Understanding the Link: What Type of Respiratory Failure is Caused by Guillain-Barre Syndrome

Guillain-Barre Syndrome (GBS) can cause serious breathing problems, which might require machines to help patients breathe. This condition affects a few people and can happen after certain vaccines, though rare.

This article talks about how GBS leads to breathing issues, the dangers involved, and how to spot and treat these problems early, especially for those with a vaccine injury.

Key Takeaways

  • Guillain-Barre Syndrome (GBS) can lead to respiratory failure due to the diaphragm and intercostal muscle weakening, requiring mechanical ventilation in 17%-30% of patients.
  • Early detection of respiratory failure symptoms in GBS patients is crucial for timely medical intervention, with factors like rapidly progressive motor weakness and vital capacity reduction as important indicators.
  • Treatment options like plasma exchange and intravenous immunoglobulins can manage GBS-related respiratory failure, but long-term monitoring and rehabilitation are necessary due to possible long-lasting impairments and complications.

Respiratory Failure in Guillain-Barre Syndrome

Key respiratory muscles, such as the diaphragm and intercostal muscles, may weaken with Guillain-Barre Syndrome, leading to respiratory failure. This neuromuscular respiratory failure is caused by progressively weakening inspiratory and expiratory muscles, which make breathing difficult and can lead to acute respiratory failure.

Some key points about respiratory dysfunction in Guillain-Barre Syndrome:

  • Between 17%-30% of patients with Guillain-Barre Syndrome require mechanical ventilation due to respiratory dysfunction.
  • Weakness in the diaphragm and intercostal muscles can impair breathing.
  • Respiratory failure is a serious complication of Guillain-Barre Syndrome.

About 30% of patients with GBS are admitted to the Intensive Care Unit (ICU) and require invasive mechanical ventilation due to impending respiratory failure. This severe weakness in the respiratory system contributes to increased health issues and even death, affecting the long-term functional prognosis of patients with Guillain-Barre Syndrome.

For those with Guillain-Barre Syndrome, monitoring certain signs can be crucial in predicting whether they might need help breathing with a ventilator. These signs include the rapid onset of muscle weakness and problems with muscles used for swallowing and speech. Additionally, the fast progression of the disease and the time it takes from when symptoms start to hospital admission are key factors in foreseeing breathing difficulties in these patients.

Ventilatory Failure

Guillain-Barré Syndrome raises concerns about ventilatory failure and bulbar dysfunction. It is caused by the progressive weakness of the inspiratory and expiratory muscles, which complicates adequate ventilation without assistance. An ineffective cough and a rapid decline in vital capacity in GBS patients often signal respiratory failure.

The respiratory dysfunction that leads to ventilatory failure contributes to:

  • Poor lung compliance: which means the lungs cannot expand as easily as normal
  • Microatelectasis: a condition where small areas of the lungs collapse and do not inflate properly
  • Hypoxemia: which is a lower-than-normal level of oxygen in the blood
  • Increased risk of lung infections due to a weakened coughing ability.

Therefore, patients in the ICU receiving ventilation, especially mechanically ventilated patients, require close monitoring. If the patient’s condition deteriorates, medical professionals must be prepared to provide immediate respiratory support, including mechanical ventilation.

Early recognition of the signs of ventilatory failure is key to preventing further complications such as aspiration pneumonia or a pulmonary embolism.

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Muscle Paralysis

You may ask how muscle paralysis impacts lung function in Guillain-Barre Syndrome. The paralysis of respiratory muscles makes it difficult for the chest to expand during breathing, preventing the lungs from filling adequately with air. This decline in lung function is directly linked to paralysis of the respiratory muscles, which can cause issues with coughing effectively and ventilating the lungs.

An ineffective cough due to muscle paralysis increases the risks of complications such as aspiration pneumonia and atelectasis in patients with Guillain-Barre Syndrome. Severe weakness in the muscles can heighten the probability of GBS patients needing mechanical ventilation to assist their breathing.

This is where electrophysiological tests such as phrenic nerve conduction studies and diaphragmatic electromyography come into play. These tests can predict respiratory complications by identifying abnormalities associated with respiratory failure in GBS patients early.

Recognizing Symptoms of Respiratory Failure

Timely medical intervention in Guillain-Barre Syndrome hinges on the early detection of respiratory failure symptoms. Symptoms may include:

  • fatigue
  • anxiety
  • shortness of breath
  • wheezing
  • confusion
  • hypoxemia
  • restlessness
  • hypercapnia

For patients with Guillain-Barre Syndrome, it’s vital to identify symptoms like difficulty breathing, an elevated heart rate, and problems with walking or climbing stairs. The first two to four weeks following symptom onset are critical for medical intervention.

Factors that predict the need for invasive mechanical ventilation in GBS patients include:

  • Rapidly progressive motor weakness
  • Involvement of peripheral limb and axial muscles
  • Ineffective cough
  • Bulbar muscle weakness
  • Rapid decrease in vital capacity

Healthcare professionals also look at the following indicators of imminent respiratory arrest in GBS patients:

  • Vital capacity less than 60% of predicted or below 20 ml/kg
  • Maximum inspiratory pressure less than 30 cm of H2O
  • Maximum expiratory pressure less than 40 cm H2O

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Diagnosing Respiratory Failure in GBS Patients

Medical professionals employ a blend of electrophysiological tests, clinical indicators, and quantitative measures to diagnose respiratory failure in GBS patients. Phrenic nerve conduction studies and diaphragmatic electromyography are non-invasive electrophysiological tests that predict respiratory failure in GBS patients.

Clinical parameters such as rapidly progressive motor weakness, involvement of peripheral limb and axial muscles, and bulbar muscle weakness are key indicators of impending respiratory failure in GBS patients. Careful monitoring is required to identify the need for respiratory support.

Quantitative measurements are important for diagnosing respiratory failure and determining the correct timing for initiating mechanical ventilation in GBS patients. These include a vital capacity of less than 60% of predicted or below 20 ml/kg and maximum inspiratory pressure below 30 cm H2O.

Early prediction, clinical indicators, and quantitative measures together form the current diagnostic criteria for diagnosing respiratory failure in GBS patients, which helps them start the right treatments sooner.

Types of Guillain-Barre Syndrome

Guillain-Barre Syndrome (GBS) is not a one-size-fits-all term. It includes various types of neurological disorders such as chronic inflammatory demyelinating polyneuropathy (CIDP), acute motor axonal neuropathy (AMAN), and Miller-Fisher Syndrome. GBS occurs worldwide with an incidence rate of 1–2 cases per 100,000 people annually, yet frequency differs by geographic region.

The highest age-standardized frequency rates of GBS have been observed in High-income Asia Pacific and North America, with Japan recording the highest in 2019. This could potentially be due to specific infections and genetic or environmental factors.

The different types of Guillain-Barré Syndrome (GBS) include:

  1. Acute inflammatory demyelinating polyradiculoneuropathy (AIDP) - the most common type of GBS
  2. Acute motor axonal neuropathy (AMAN)
  3. Acute motor sensory axonal neuropathy (AMSAN)

These types may lead to respiratory dysfunction, highlighting the need for awareness and understanding of this complex syndrome and its clinical associations.

Causes and Risk Factors of Guillain-Barre Syndrome

Guillain-Barre Syndrome has a multitude of causes and risk factors. Some of the main ones include:

  • Campylobacter jejuni infection is one of the leading causes of diarrhea, which is an underlying factor in GBS. Two-thirds of GBS cases follow respiratory illness or gastroenteritis, linking these infections to the syndrome’s development.
  • Vaccination can very rarely trigger GBS, with vaccines such as Seasonal Influenza, Hepatitis, and HPV among those associated with its onset.
  • The risk for GBS is observed to be higher among men.
  • The risk of GBS considerably increases among adults over 50, with cases peaking during certain seasons.

A worldwide increase of 6.4% in GBS has been reported since 1990, with the highest standardized rates in regions like high-income Asia Pacific and North America. The global burden is higher in males, pointing to potential risk factors that need further research.

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Guillain-Barre Syndrome and Vaccines

The relationship between Guillain-Barre Syndrome and vaccines is a topic of ongoing research and discussion. Vaccination can very rarely lead to Guillain-Barre Syndrome (GBS), with incidents especially noted in childhood and influenza vaccines, although the risk is much lower compared to contracting GBS from an illness like the flu.

The Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine has been linked with about 100 suspected cases of GBS out of 12.8 million doses in the U.S., while mRNA vaccines from Pfizer and Moderna have not been linked to GBS currently. Due to reports of GBS cases, the FDA has mandated a warning label for the Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine to inform the public of a potential increased risk.

Multiple studies assessing the link between influenza vaccines and GBS present varying results, which adds to the complexity of making clear determinations about vaccine-related injury claims.

Treatment Options for GBS-Related Respiratory Failure

Despite the daunting nature of Guillain-Barre Syndrome and its related respiratory failure, effective treatment options exist. Plasma exchange and intravenous immunoglobulins are specific treatments that can manage respiratory failure in patients with Guillain-Barré Syndrome.

Plasma exchange can:

  • Increase the number of patients who regain the ability to walk at four weeks
  • Reduce the need for artificial ventilation
  • Increase the likelihood of full muscle strength recovery at one year.

However, while plasma exchange therapy shows a higher chance of complete recovery of muscle strength, it presents a small but significant risk of relapse during the first year after treatment. This highlights the importance of continued monitoring and follow-up in GBS patients.

Potential Complications and Long-Term Effects

Respiratory failure in Guillain-Barre Syndrome significantly increases morbidity and mortality, affecting long-term functional prognosis. A considerable number of GBS patients suffer from:

  • long-lasting motor and sensory impairments
  • pain
  • fatigue
  • a reduced quality of life

These are often related to respiratory issues during the acute phase.

Pulmonary function in GBS patients can improve steadily, with the potential for almost complete recovery without any residual impairment after 2 years. However, to prevent further complications, GBS patients need to monitor their symptoms closely and seek early intervention when necessary.

Effective treatment and recovery from GBS-related respiratory failure require:

  • careful monitoring of lung function
  • anticipation of the need for mechanical ventilation
  • initiating respiratory muscle rehabilitation alongside other therapeutic measures

This is important to avoid overuse and to prevent further weakening, thus contributing to better long-term outcomes for GBS patients.

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Legal Considerations and Vaccine Injury Compensation

Legal aid is available to those who have experienced adverse effects following vaccination, such as Guillain-Barre syndrome. Vaccine injury lawyers, like My Vaccine Lawyer, specialize in representing individuals who have suffered adverse effects post-vaccination, sometimes providing services free of charge to the claimants.

Claims for vaccine-induced Guillain-Barre syndrome are filed in accordance with procedures defined by the Vaccine Injury Table as part of the Vaccine Injury Compensation Program (VICP). Guillain-Barre syndrome may be eligible for compensation under the VICP if symptoms manifest within an appropriate time frame after vaccination.

Data from the Vaccine Safety Datalink Project and population-based surveillance during the 2009-2010 H1N1 vaccination campaign play a vital role in evaluating vaccine injury claims for GBS. This data is invaluable in making clear determinations about vaccine-related injury claims.


Guillain-Barre Syndrome is a complex neurological disorder with numerous manifestations and potential complications, including respiratory failure. This blog post has highlighted the intricate relationship between GBS and respiratory failure, the symptoms to watch out for, diagnosis techniques, and treatment options.

Understanding the various forms of GBS, the causes, risk factors, and the role of vaccines is vital for managing this condition. While GBS can be a daunting diagnosis, with the right knowledge and timely interventions, it can be managed effectively.

Remember, knowledge is power. Stay informed, seek early interventions, and don’t hesitate to ask for help when needed. Here’s to a future with more awareness, better treatment options, and improved quality of life for all GBS patients.

Frequently Asked Questions


What type of respiratory failure is caused by Guillain Barre Syndrome?

Guillain-Barre Syndrome typically causes type 2 respiratory failure, characterized by inadequate ventilation leading to carbon dioxide retention and respiratory acidosis.

Does Guillain-Barré syndrome impair ventilation?

Yes, Guillain-Barré syndrome can impair ventilation, leading to acute respiratory failure and the potential need for mechanical ventilation, affecting up to 30% of patients.

What severe complication is associated with Guillain-Barré syndrome?

In severe cases, Guillain-Barré syndrome can lead to near-total paralysis and difficulty breathing, potentially becoming life-threatening. Individuals with GBS must receive prompt treatment and close monitoring.

What are the predictors of respiratory failure in GBS patients?

The predictors of respiratory failure in GBS patients include cranial nerve involvement, disability grade on admission, rapidly progressive motor weakness, absence of deep tendon reflexes, and autonomic dysfunction. These factors can help identify patients at risk of developing respiratory failure.

What is type 2 respiratory failure?

Type 2 respiratory failure occurs when the respiratory system cannot sufficiently remove carbon dioxide from the body, leading to hypercapnia. This can result in respiratory acidosis.

What causes Guillain-Barre Syndrome?

Guillain-Barre Syndrome can be triggered by infections such as Campylobacter jejuni and, in rare cases, vaccinations. These factors can lead to the development of the syndrome.

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Meet the Author

Max Muller - Founding Partner

Mr. Muller currently devotes the majority of his law practice to aggressively fighting for the victims of unsafe drug and medical device injuries, as well as vaccine injuries and vaccine reactions involving the flu shot, TDaP/DTaP vaccine, and more. He has handled hundreds of SIRVA injury cases (shoulder injury related to vaccine administration), especially those involving bursitis, tendonitis, frozen shoulder, and rotator cuff tears. Mr. Muller also handles cases where vaccines caused serious nerve injuries such as Guillain-Barre Syndrome. Mr. Muller has recovered millions of dollars in compensation for his clients in the Vaccine Injury Compensation Program.

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