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Breathing difficulty

Definition

Breathing difficulty may involve:

  • Difficult breathing
  • Uncomfortable breathing
  • Feeling like you are not getting enough air

Alternative Names

Shortness of breath; Breathlessness; Difficulty breathing; Dyspnea

Considerations

There is no standard definition for difficulty breathing. Some people feel breathless with only mild exercise (for example, climbing stairs), even though they do not have a medical condition. Others may have advanced lung disease but may never feel short of breath.

Wheezing is one form of breathing difficulty in which you make a high-pitched sound when you breathe out.

Causes

Shortness of breath has many different causes. For example, heart disease can cause breathlessness if your heart is unable to pump enough blood to supply oxygen to your body. If your brain, muscles, or other body organs do not get enough oxygen, a sense of breathlessness may occur.

Breathing difficulty may also be due to problems with the lungs, airways, or other health problems.

Problems with the lungs:

Problems with the airways leading to the lungs:

  • Blockage of the air passages in your nose, mouth, or throat
  • Choking on something stuck in the airways
  • Croup
  • Epiglottitis

Problems with the heart:

Other causes:

  • Allergies (such as to mold, dander, or pollen)
  • High altitudes where there is less oxygen in the air
  • Compression of the chest wall
  • Dust in the environment
  • Emotional distress, such as anxiety
  • Hiatal hernia
  • Obesity
  • Panic attacks

Home Care

Sometimes, mild breathing difficulty may be normal and is not a cause for concern. A very stuffy nose is one example. Strenuous exercise, especially when you do not exercise often, is another example.

If breathing difficulty is new or is getting worse, it may be due to a serious problem. Though many causes are not dangerous and are easily treated, call your health care provider for any breathing difficulty.

If you are being treated for a long-term problem with your lungs or heart, follow your provider's directions to help with that problem.

Go to the emergency room or call the local emergency number (such as 911) if:

  • Breathing difficulty comes on suddenly or seriously interferes with your breathing
  • Someone completely stops breathing

See your provider if any of the following occur with breathing difficulties:

  • Chest discomfort, pain, or pressure. These are symptoms of angina.
  • Fever
  • Shortness of breath after only slight activity or while at rest
  • Shortness of breath that wakes you up at night or requires you to sleep propped up to breathe
  • Tightness in the throat or a barking, croupy cough
  • You have breathed in or choked on an object (foreign object aspiration or ingestion)
  • Wheezing

The health care provider will examine you and ask about your medical history and symptoms:

  • How long have you had breathing difficulty? Did it start suddenly? Has it gotten worse recently?
  • Is there a sequence of separate episodes? How long does each last, and does each episode have a similar pattern?
  • Does breathing difficulty cause you to wake up at night (paroxysmal nocturnal dyspnea)?
  • Is it worse when you change body position?
  • Did it develop within 4 to 6 hours after exposure to something that you are or may be allergic to (antigen)?
  • Is it worse after exercise?
  • Do you make grunting or wheezing sounds while breathing?

Tests that may be ordered include:

If the breathing difficulty is severe, you may need to go to a hospital. You may receive medicines to treat the cause of breathing difficulty.

If your blood oxygen level is very low, you may need oxygen.

References

Kraft M. Approach to the patient with respiratory disease. In: Goldman L, Schafer AI, eds. Goldman's Cecil Medicine. 25th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Saunders; 2016:chap 83.

Schwartzstein RM, Adams L. Dyspnea. In: Broaddus VC, Mason RJ, Ernst JD, et al, eds. Murray and Nadel's Textbook of Respiratory Medicine. 6th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Saunders; 2016:chap 29.

Review Date: 6/22/2015
Reviewed By: Denis Hadjiliadis, MD, MHS, Associate Professor of Medicine, Pulmonary, Allergy, and Critical Care, Perelman School of Medicine, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, PA. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Isla Ogilvie, PhD, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.

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