Search Encyclopedia:    
List of Topics Print This Page
 

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 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.

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 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 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.

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.

   View History
  Breathing difficulty

   
   

 

About UPHS   Contact Us   Site Map   Privacy Statement   Legal Disclaimer   Terms of Use

The University of Pennsylvania Health System, Philadelphia, PA 1-800-789-PENN © 2016, The Trustees of the University of Pennsylvania