Organ failure means that one or several of your organs is failing to do its job adequately for your body’s needs. This can happen suddenly or gradually. If one of your vital organs fails, you’ll need life support or an organ transplant to replace it. Your vital organs include your liver, kidneys, heart, brain, lungs and small intestine.
Organ failure is when one (or several) of your vital organs stops functioning. It can be a gradual (chronic) or sudden (acute) process. Your vital organs are the ones you can’t live without.
When one of your vital organs begins to fail, you’ll need life support to aid or replace the failing organ and do the jobs it’s no longer doing. Sometimes organs recover, but sometimes they don’t. When organ failure is final, it can be fatal.
The vital organs that can fail include your:
Different conditions may cause one of your organs to fail, or several at once. When it’s more than one, providers may call it:
The term, “organ failure,” can be misleading. It seems to imply that your organ is already expired. But that’s only the end stage. It really means that your organ isn’t up to its full capacity. It’s failing to do its whole job. As it does less of its job, you’ll need more support. You may need it urgently if you have acute organ failure, and it may be temporary. You’ll need a longer-term plan for chronic organ failure.
Chronic organ failure progresses in stages that healthcare providers define a little differently for each organ. There are usually four or five. In general, the last stage or two are considered the “end-stages.” This is the point where your organ is coming close to absolute failure. It’s damaged enough and has lost enough of its functionality that you’ll need artificial life support, or an organ transplant, to survive.
Acute organ failure either starts in the end stages or progresses there rapidly. It requires immediate intervention. However, acute multiple-organ failure may occur in something like stages. Since your vital organs support each other, sometimes one failing organ can trigger others to fail in a domino effect. How this occurs can vary depending on how it starts, but it’s often a predictable sequence of events.
Some common symptoms of many types of organ failure include:
Additional signs and symptoms of specific organ failure include:
Some common causes of organ failure include:
Chronic diseases can cause progressive damage to your organs over time. Some diseases you’re born with, and others may occur later in your life. Once you have a chronic disease, it usually won’t go away, though there may be ways of slowing down the damage it does. It may take decades for this damage to accumulate until it noticeably affects your organ function or requires intervention.
A severe injury to one of your organs may cause acute organ failure. If your organ recovers, but it sustains permanent damage from the injury, that may cause chronic organ failure. Your organ may not be able to do its job as well as before. A severe injury that affects your whole body may provoke a state of shock, which stops blood flow to all of your organs. This can cause acute multiple-organ failure.
Toxins can cause both acute and chronic organ injury. They can affect any or all of your vital organs. You can get toxic poisoning from substances in your environment, from bacterial infections that produce toxins in your body or from substances that you take. Your liver and kidneys filter low levels of toxins from your blood every day. If they fail, these toxins may build up and injure your other organs.
Your organs receive oxygen through blood flow. If something cuts off blood flow to your organ, it won’t have the oxygen it needs to function (hypoxia). This can cause acute or chronic organ failure, depending on how severely the blood supply is cut off. Ischemia is a loss of blood supply to a particular organ. It can be severe or a slow, gradual loss. Shock is a sudden loss of blood flow throughout your body.
Healthcare providers use specific tests to diagnose organ failure in your different organs. For example:
For acute organ failure, healthcare providers offer supportive care to stabilize your condition. This may include:
In some cases, an organ transplant can cure acute organ failure.
For chronic organ failure, healthcare providers offer:
Sometimes organs recover from acute organ failure. This is true even when many are failing at once. You may only need life support temporarily in this case. Chronic organ failure is sometimes reversible in the early stages if you’re able to treat the original cause effectively. However, the later stages are generally marked by irreversible damage, such as fibrosis (scarring in your organs) or tissue death.
A note from Cleveland Clinic
If you are diagnosed with chronic organ failure, all hope isn’t lost. You probably have many years to try and turn the tides on your condition. Many therapies are also available to help compensate for the failing organ and ease your symptoms if you have any. Some people never progress to the end stages of chronic organ failure. When those stages are in sight, you can usually apply for an organ transplant.
Acute organ failure is often the result of an unexpected illness or injury. It’s difficult to prevent, and it’s an emergency when it occurs. Healthcare providers in the intensive care unit (ICU) will do everything they can to support your many body systems while your failing organ or organs attempt to recover.
Last reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional on 02/06/2023.
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