OBJECTIVES: Acute respiratory failure is present in 5% of patients with acute myocardial infarction and is responsible for 20% to 30% of the fatal post-acute myocardial infarction. The role of inflammation associated with pulmonary edema as a cause of acute respiratory failure post-acute myocardial infarction remains to be determined. We aimed to describe the demographics, etiologic data and histological pulmonary findings obtained through autopsies of patients who died during the period from 1990 to 2008 due to acute respiratory failure with no diagnosis of acute myocardial infarction during life. METHODS: This study considers 4,223 autopsies of patients who died of acute respiratory failure that was not preceded by any particular diagnosis while they were alive. The diagnosis of acute myocardial infarction was given in 218 (4.63%) patients. The age, sex and major associated diseases were recorded for each patient. Pulmonary histopathology was categorized as follows: diffuse alveolar damage, pulmonary edema, alveolar hemorrhage and lymphoplasmacytic interstitial pneumonia. The odds ratio of acute myocardial infarction associated with specific histopathology was determined by logistic regression. RESULTS: In total, 147 men were included in the study. The mean age at the time of death was 64 years. Pulmonary histopathology revealed pulmonary edema as well as the presence of diffuse alveolar damage in 72.9% of patients. Bacterial bronchopneumonia was present in 11.9% of patients, systemic arterial hypertension in 10.1% and dilated cardiomyopathy in 6.9%. A multivariate analysis demonstrated a significant positive association between acute myocardial infarction with diffuse alveolar damage and pulmonary edema. CONCLUSIONS: For the first time, we demonstrated that in autopsies of patients with acute respiratory failure as the cause of death, 5% were diagnosed with acute myocardial infarction. Pulmonary histology revealed a significant inflammatory response, which has not previously been reported.