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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

Home Care:

Sometimes, mild breathing difficulty may be normal and is not 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 health care provider's directions to help with that problem.

When to Contact a Medical Professional:

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 health care 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
What to Expect at Your Office Visit:

The doctor or nurse will examine you and ask about your medical history and symptoms:

  • How long have you had breathing difficulty?
  • Did it slowly progress over weeks to months?
  • Did it begin recently?
  • Did it begin suddenly?
  • Is there a sequence of separate episodes? How long does each last, and does each episode have a similar pattern?
  • Has the breathing difficulty gotten worse recently?
  • Does breathing difficulty cause you to wake up at night (paroxysmal nocturnal dyspnea)?
  • Does the amount of breathing difficulty change over time?
  • Does breathing difficulty occur while you are at rest?
  • How long does each episode last?
  • Is it worse when you lie flat (orthopnea)?
  • 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?
  • Does shortness of breath occur only when you are wheezing?
  • Is your breathing pattern irregular?
  • Do you draw back the chest muscles with breathing (intercostal retractions)?
  • What other symptoms do you have?

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. 24th ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Elsevier Saunders; 2011:chap 83.


Review Date: 4/21/2013
Reviewed By: David C. Dugdale, III, MD, Professor of Medicine, Division of General Medicine, Department of Medicine, University of Washington School of Medicine. Also reviewed by A.D.A.M. Health Solutions, Ebix, Inc., Editorial Team: David Zieve, MD, MHA, Bethanne Black, Stephanie Slon, and Nissi Wang.

The information provided herein should not be used during any medical emergency or for the diagnosis or treatment of any medical condition. A licensed physician should be consulted for diagnosis and treatment of any and all medical conditions. Call 911 for all medical emergencies. Links to other sites are provided for information only -- they do not constitute endorsements of those other sites. Copyright 2002 A.D.A.M., Inc. Any duplication or distribution of the information contained herein is strictly prohibited.

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