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Breathing difficulties - first aid

Definition

Breathing difficulties can range from being short of breath, unable to take a deep breath, gasping for air, or feeling like you are not getting enough air.

This article discusses first aid for someone who is having breathing problems.

See also: Choking

Alternative Names

Difficulty breathing - first aid; Dyspnea - first aid; Shortness of breath - first aid

Considerations

Breathing difficulty is almost always a medical emergency (other than feeling slightly winded from normal activity such as exercise).

Causes

There are many different causes for breathing problems. Common causes include:

  • Anemia (low red blood cell count)
  • Asthma
  • Being at a high altitude
  • Blood clot in the lung
  • Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)
  • Collapsed lung
  • Heart attack
  • Heart disease or heart failure
  • Injury to the neck, chest wall, or lungs
  • Life-threatening allergic reaction
  • Near drowning (fluid in the lungs)
  • Pleural effusion (fluid surrounding the lungs and compressing them) 
  • Respiratory infections, including pneumonia, acute bronchitis, whooping cough, croup, and others

Symptoms

A person with breathing difficulty may have:

First Aid

If someone is having breathing difficulty, immediately call 911 or your local emergency number, then:

  1. Check the person's airway, breathing, and pulse. If necessary, begin CPR.
  2. Loosen any tight clothing.
  3. Help the person use any prescribed medication (such as an asthma inhaler or home oxygen).
  4. Continue to monitor the person's breathing and pulse until medical help arrives. Do NOT assume that the person's condition is improving if you can no longer hear abnormal breath sounds, such as wheezing.
  5. If there are open wounds in the neck or chest, they must be closed immediately, especially if air bubbles appear in the wound. Bandage such wounds at once.
  6. A "sucking" chest wound allows air to enter the person's chest cavity with each breath. This can cause a collapsed lung. Bandage the wound with plastic wrap, a plastic bag, or gauze pads covered with petroleum jelly, sealing it except for one corner. This allows trapped air to escape from the chest, but it prevents air from entering the chest through the wound.

Do Not

  • Do NOT give the person food or drink.
  • Do NOT move the person if there has been a chest or airway injury, unless it is absolutely necessary.
  • Do NOT place a pillow under the person's head. This can close the airway.
  • Do NOT wait to see if the person's condition improves before getting medical help. Get help immediately.

Call immediately for emergency medical assistance if

Call 911 or your local emergency number if you or someone else has difficulty breathing, especially if you notice:

  • Blue lips, fingers, or fingernails
  • Chest pain
  • Coughing up large amounts of blood
  • Dizziness or lightheadedness
  • Excessive drooling
  • Facial, tongue, or throat swelling
  • High-pitched or wheezing sounds
  • Hives
  • Inability to speak
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Rapid or irregular heartbeat
  • Sweating

Call your doctor right away if:

  • Shortness of breath is brought on by coughing, especially productive coughing.
  • Your child's cough has a barking sound.
  • You have a fever, green or yellow phlegm, night sweats, weight loss, loss of appetite, or swelling in your legs.
  • You are coughing up small amounts of blood.

Prevention

  • Wear a medical alert tag if you have a pre-existing breathing condition, such as asthma.
  • If you have a history of severe allergic reactions, carry an epinephrine pen and wear a medical alert tag. Your doctor will teach you how to use the epinephrine pen.
  • If you have asthma or allergies, eliminate household allergy triggers like dust mites and mold.
  • Don't smoke, and keep away from secondhand smoke. Don't allow smoking in your home.
  • If you have asthma, see the article on asthma to learn ways to manage it.
  • Make sure your child obtains the whooping cough (pertussis) vaccine.
  • When traveling by airplane, get up and walk around once in every few hours to avoid forming blood clots in your legs. Clots can break off and lodge in your lungs. If traveling by car, stop and walk around regularly.
  • Lose weight. You are more likely to feel winded if you are overweight. You are also at greater risk for heart disease and heart attack.

References

Manno M. Pediatric respiratory emergencies: upper airway obstruction and infections. In: Marx J, ed. Rosen's Emergency Medicine: Concepts and Clinical Practice. 7th ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Mosby Elsevier; 2009:chap 166.

Thomas SH, Brown DFM. Foreign bodies. In: Marx J, ed. Rosen's Emergency Medicine: Concepts and Clinical Practice. 7th ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Mosby Elsevier; 2009:chap 57.

Wippold FJ II. Diagnostic imaging of the larynx. In: Cummings CW, Flint PW, Haughey BH, et al, eds. Otolaryngology: Head & Neck Surgery. 5th ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Mosby Elsevier; 2010:chap 106.


Review Date: 7/20/2013
Reviewed By: Jacob L. Heller, MD, MHA, Emergency Medicine, Virginia Mason Medical Center, Seattle, Washington. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Bethanne Black, 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 medical professional 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. © 1997- A.D.A.M., Inc. Any duplication or distribution of the information contained herein is strictly prohibited.
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