Diseases & Conditions A - Z
powered by Talix

Breathing Difficulties

The term "breathing difficulty" describes discomfort when breathing and the feeling that you can’t draw a complete breath. This can develop gradually, or you may have a sudden onset. Breathing difficulties make you feel as though you can’t get enough air. Mild breathing problems, such as fatigue following an aerobics class, don’t fall into this category.

Breathing difficulty can be due to a number of different conditions. It can also develop as a result of stress and anxiety.

Frequently occurring episodes of shortness of breath or sudden, intense breathing difficulty may be signs of a serious health issue that needs medical attention.

What causes breathing difficulties?

Breathing difficulties are often due to simple environmental issues or common health concerns. These include allergies to dust, mold, or pollen; stress and anxiety; blocked air passages from a stuffy nose or throat phlegm; and lowered oxygen intake from climbing to a high altitude

Lung conditions

There are a number of lung conditions that can cause breathing difficulty. All of these require immediate medical attention.

Asthma is an inflammation and narrowing of the airways that can cause shortness of breath, wheezing, chest tightness, and coughing.

Pneumonia is lung inflammation caused by infection. Symptoms may include shortness of breath, cough, chest pain, chills, sweating, fever, muscle pain, and exhaustion. This can be a life-threatening condition.

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) refers to a group of diseases that cause difficulty exhaling. Other symptoms include wheezing, a constant cough, and chest tightness. Emphysema, often caused by years of smoking, is in this category of diseases.

Pulmonary embolism is a blockage in one or more of the arteries leading to the lungs. This is often the result of a blood clot from elsewhere in the body that travelled up to the lung arteries. This condition can be life threatening and requires immediate medical attention. Other symptoms include swelling of the leg, chest pain, cough, wheezing, profuse sweating, abnormal heart rate, dizziness, and a bluish tint to the skin.

Pulmonary hypertension is high blood pressure that affects the lung and heart arteries. This condition is often due to the narrowing or hardening of the lung arteries. Symptoms of this condition are very similar to those of a pulmonary embolism. Immediate medical attention is needed.

Croup is a respiratory condition caused by an acute viral infection. It’s known for its distinctive loud and "barking" cough. Make an appointment with your doctor if you or your child has croup. According to the Mayo Clinic, children under three years old are more susceptible to this condition.

Epiglottitis is a swelling of the epiglottis (the tissue that covers the windpipe) due to infection. This is a life-threatening disease that requires immediate medical attention. Other symptoms include fever, sore throat, drooling, blue skin, difficulty breathing and swallowing, strange breathing sounds, chills, and hoarseness. One common cause of epiglottis may be prevented by a Hib vaccination. Adults are not likely to have a Hib infection and the vaccine is generally only given to children under the age of 5.

Hiatal hernia is the protrusion of the stomach through the diaphragm into the chest. Individuals with this condition may also experience chest pain, difficulty swallowing, and heartburn. Medication and lifestyle changes can often treat small hiatal hernias. Larger hernias or smaller ones that don’t respond to treatment may require surgery. 

Heart conditions

You may notice yourself getting out of breath more often if you suffer from a heart condition. This is due to your heart struggling to pump oxygen-rich blood to the rest of your body. There are a variety of possible conditions that can cause this problem.

Coronary artery disease (CAD) is a disease that causes narrowing and hardening of the arteries connected to the heart. Symptoms also include chest pain (angina) or heart attack.

Congenital heart disease refers to inherited problems with the structure or functioning of the heart.

Arrhythmias are disorders of heart rhythm or heart rate, which can cause an irregular heartbeat or a heart that beats too fast or too slow.

Other heart conditions that could lead to breathing difficulty include heart attack and heart failure.

Who is at risk for breathing difficulties?

You’re 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.

What are the symptoms of breathing difficulties?

You’re having breathing problems when you feel as though you can’t breathe in enough oxygen. Some specific signs include a faster breathing rate, wheezing (a whistling sound when exhaling and sometimes inhaling), blue fingernails or mouth, a pale or gray complexion, head sweat, and flaring nostrils.

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 know how to do so.

Some 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 fever, pain or pressure in the chest, wheezing, tightness in the throat, a barking cough, shortness of breath that requires you to sit up constantly, and shortness of breath that wakes you up during the night.

Breathing difficulties in young children

Babies and young children often have breathing difficulties when they suffer from respiratory viruses. Mild symptoms occur because small children don’t 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.


Croup is a respiratory illness usually caused by a virus. The Mayo Clinic reports that children between 6 months old and 5 years old are the most likely to get croup, but it can develop in older children. Croup usually begins with symptoms similar to a cold. A hallmark of the illness is 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 younger than six months old. 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 seven to 10 days.

Your child needs medical attention if they have increased or persistent breathing difficulty, are taking more than 40 breaths a minute, must sit up to breathe, or retractions are present. A retraction is when the skin of the chest between the ribs and in the neck sinks in with each breath. If your child has heart disease or was born prematurely, you should seek medical attention as soon as you notice they are having difficulty breathing.

How are breathing difficulties diagnosed?

Your doctor will need to determine the underlying cause of your breathing difficulties. They’ll ask you how long you’ve had the problem, whether it’s mild or intense, and whether physical exertion makes it worse. After reviewing your medical history, your doctor will examine your airway passages, lungs, and heart.

Depending on the findings of your physical exam, your doctor might recommend one or more diagnostic tests. They may order blood tests to check for oxygen levels. A chest X-ray and CT scan can look for underlying medical conditions, while an electrocardiogram (ECG) can look for heart damage. An echocardiogram is another diagnostic tool. It can help check for heart disease, a heart murmur, or an infection. Your doctor may also order pulmonary (lung) function tests to measure how well your lungs are working, as well as exercise testing to see how your heart and lungs react to physical exertion.

What are the treatment options for breathing difficulties?

Determining the cause is the key to treating breathing difficulties.

Lifestyle changes

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’re otherwise healthy. The temporary symptoms will resolve once either your cold abates, you stop exercising, or you return to a lower altitude.

Stress reduction

If stress causes your breathing problems, the remedy is to reduce the stresses in your life and 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 need to use an inhaler immediately after experiencing breathing problems. If allergies are the cause of your breathing difficulties, your doctor may prescribe an antihistamine to reduce nasal inflammation, and may also recommend avoiding triggers like dust or pollen. 

In extreme cases, you may need a breathing machine or monitoring at a hospital.

If your child is experiencing breathing difficulties, you may want to try some soothing home remedies alongside treatment from a doctor. Cool or moist air can help, so take your child outside into the night air or into a steamy bathroom. Run a cool mist humidifier while your child is sleeping. Acetaminophen can also help, but check with your child’s doctor for proper dosage.

Content licensed from:

Written by: Chitra Badii and Marijane Leonard
Medically reviewed on: Feb 22, 2016: Deborah Weatherspoon, Ph.D, MSN, RN, CRNA

This feature is for informational purposes only and should not be used to replace the care and information received from your health care provider. Please consult a health care professional with any health concerns you may have.
Symptom Search
Enter your symptoms in our Symptom Checker to find out possible causes of your symptoms. Go.
Drug Interaction Checker
Enter any list of prescription drugs and see how they interact with each other and with other substances. Go.
Pill Identifier
Enter its color and shape information, and this tool helps you identify it. Go.
Drugs A-Z
Find information on drug interactions, side effects, and more. Go.