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Breathing difficulty is a broad term that is used to describe discomfort when breathing, and the feeling that you cannot draw a breath. This can develop gradually, or your breathing may suddenly become more labored. Breathing difficulties make you feel as though you cannot get enough air. Mild breathing problems, such as fatigue following an aerobics class, are not a concern.
Breathing difficulty can be caused by a number of different conditions, or it can develop as a result of stress and anxiety.
Frequently occurring shortness of breath or sudden, intense breathing difficulty may be a sign of a serious health issue in need of medical attention.
Breathing difficulties are often caused by simple environmental issues and/or common health concerns. These include:
According to the experts at the Mayo Clinic, lung and heart conditions are the top two reasons for breathing difficulty (Mayo Clinic, 2010).
There are a number of lung conditions that can cause breathing difficulty. All of these require immediate medical attention, some more immediate than others:
You may notice yourself getting out of breath more often if you suffer from a heart condition. This is due to the heart struggling to pump oxygen-rich blood out to the body. Possible conditions that can cause this problem include:
Babies and young children often have breathing difficulties when they suffer from respiratory viruses. Mild symptoms occur because small children do not know how to clear their noses and throats. There are several conditions that can lead to more severe breathing difficulties. Most children recover easily, however. These illnesses include:
Croup is respiratory illness usually caused by a virus. Children between 3 months and 5 years are most likely to get croup, but it can develop in older children. Croup usually begins with symptoms similar to a cold, but the illness is characterized by a “barking” cough that sounds like a seal. Breathing difficulties can result from frequent coughing. This often occurs at night. Most cases of croup resolve within a week. The first and second nights of coughing are usually the worst. In some cases, a severe bacterial infection can develop in the upper airway.
A viral lung infection, bronchiolitis usually affects babies between 3 and 6 months. The illness may appear like the common cold at first, but coughing, rapid breathing, and wheezing may follow after a few days. In most cases, babies get well in a week to 10 days.
The following may soothe the respiratory symptoms that are causing your child’s breathing problems:
Your child requires medical attention if:
You are at greater risk for breathing problems if you experience constant stress, suffer from allergies, or have a chronic lung or heart condition. Obesity also increases the risk of breathing difficulties. Extreme physical exertion can also put you at risk for breathing problems, particularly when you exercise in intense spurts or at high altitudes.
You are having breathing problems when you feel as though you cannot breathe in enough oxygen. Here are some specific signs:
Contact an emergency doctor if breathing difficulty comes on suddenly. Seek immediate medical attention for anyone whose breathing appears to have slowed considerably or to have stopped. After you have called 911, perform emergency CPR if you are trained to do so.
The following symptoms, along with breathing difficulty, can indicate a serious problem. These problems may indicate an angina attack, a lack of oxygen, or a heart attack. Symptoms to be aware of include:
To understand the cause of your breathing difficulties, your doctor will ask you how long you have had the problem, whether it is mild or intense, and whether physical exertion makes it worse. After reviewing your medical history, the doctor will examine your airway passages, lungs, and heart. Depending on the findings of your physical exam, your doctor might recommend one or more of the following tests:
Determining the cause is the key to treating breathing difficulties.
If having a stuffy nose, exercising too hard, or hiking at high altitudes causes your symptoms, your breathing is likely to return to normal if you are otherwise healthy. The temporary symptoms will resolve once your cold abates, you stop exercising, or you return to a lower altitude.
If stress causes your breathing problems, the remedy is to reduce the stresses in your life and/or develop coping mechanisms. Meditation, counseling, exercise, and laughter are a few strategies for coping with ongoing stress.
Some breathing difficulties are symptoms of serious heart and lung illnesses. In these cases, your doctor will prescribe medication and other treatments. If you suffer from asthma, for example, you may be instructed to use an inhaler immediately after experiencing breathing problems. If allergies are the cause of your breathing difficulties, your doctor may presribe an anti-histamine to reduce nasal inflammation, and may also recommend avoiding triggers like dust or pollen.
In extreme cases, you may be placed on a breathing machine or monitored at a hospital.
Left untreated, your breathing could worsen, and the condition could prove fatal.
Do not hesitate to call 911 if you are struggling to breathe, especially if it has come on suddenly and/or is accompanied by other symptoms such as chest tightness, headache, wheezing, numbness, or fever.
There are a number of ways you can prevent having difficulty breathing.
Written by: Chitra Badii and Marijane Leonard
Published on Jul 25, 2012
Updated on Mar 22, 2013
Medically reviewed by George Krucik, MD
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