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What causes labored breathing? 13 possible conditions

What Does Labored Breathing Mean?

Unless you’re running a marathon, breathing isn’t usually something you think about. When you experience labored breathing, you can’t breathe easily and may even struggle to breathe. Labored breathing can be alarming and cause you to feel tired or worn out. It can sometimes represent a medical emergency.

There are numerous causes of labored breathing. Not all of them are specifically related to the lungs. Seeking medical treatment to identify a cause can help you get back to breathing normally.

What Are the Symptoms of Labored Breathing?

Other names for labored breathing include:

  • difficulty breathing
  • trouble breathing
  • uncomfortable breathing
  • working hard to breathe

The severity of labored breathing depends on its circumstances. For example, when exercising, you may temporarily experience labored breathing as a part of exerting yourself. Labored breathing lasts longer and you can’t expect it to subside within a certain amount of time.

What Causes Labored Breathing?

Labored breathing can have many causes. Some are related to chronic conditions, including:

  • amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS)
  • asthma
  • cardiomyopathy
  • chronic bronchitis
  • chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)
  • coronary artery disease
  • congestive heart failure
  • emphysema
  • Guillain-Barré syndrome
  • lung cancer
  • myasthenia gravis
  • pulmonary edema
  • pulmonary fibrosis
  • pulmonary hypertension
  • sarcoidosis
  • stable angina
  • tuberculosis
  • ventricular dysfunction

Just because labored breathing is a symptom of a chronic condition doesn’t mean it’s OK or normal.

Other acute or sudden-onset conditions that may result in labored breathing include:

  • anemia
  • carbon monoxide poisoning
  • croup
  • fluid buildup around the lungs due to pleural effusion or pericardial effusion
  • heart attack
  • pneumonia
  • pneumothorax
  • upper airway obstruction (choking on something)

Many of these causes of labored breathing represent medical emergencies.

Labored breathing can also be the result of anxiety. Feeling panicked or scared can cause you to hyperventilate or breathe very quickly. You may have trouble catching your breath, causing your breathing to be labored.

When Do I Seek Medical Help for Labored Breathing?

Breathing is vital to your body’s functioning, particularly your brain. For this reason, labored breathing is often considered a medical emergency.

Seek immediate medical attention if you experience a labored breathing episode unrelated to physical activity that doesn’t go away after a few minutes. Even if you can attribute the labored breathing to an underlying disease, seeking immediate attention before your condition worsens can protect your health and your airway.

Other symptoms associated with labored breathing that need medical attention include:

  • difficulty lying flat
  • feeling disoriented or confused
  • gasping
  • wheezing when breathing

Children can also experience labored breathing. Symptoms that warrant immediate medical attention include:

  • breathing very quickly, especially faster than normal
  • excessive drooling or difficulty swallowing
  • skin that looks blue or gray around the nose, mouth, or fingernails
  • noisy, high-pitched breathing sounds
  • suddenly anxiety or fatigue

How Is Labored Breathing Diagnosed?

A doctor will first try to relate the labored breathing to a known cause. For example, if you have lung cancer or COPD, your labored breathing may likely be due to worsening of that condition.

Additional diagnostic tests that may help diagnose labored breathing include:

  • physical exam: Your doctor will listen to your lungs with a stethoscope, count how fast you’re breathing, and look at your overall appearance.
  • functional assessment: This may include watching you walk to see how short of breath you become.
  • chest X-ray: Taking an X-ray visualizes the lungs so your doctor can look for any potential obstructions, fluid buildup, or pneumonia symptoms.
  • computed tomography (CT) scan: This provides a detailed view of the lungs and other organs in your body to identify abnormalities.
  • blood testing: Doing a blood test for a complete blood count (CBC) test can determine how many oxygen-carrying red blood cells you have. An arterial blood gas (ABG) is another blood test that can indicate how much oxygen is present in the blood.

How Is Labored Breathing Treated?

Treatment for labored breathing depends upon the underlying cause and the severity of the symptoms. Examples include:

  • administering breathing treatments or medications to open up closed airways
  • applying oxygen therapy to increase the amount of available oxygen in the air
  • medications for people experiencing labored breathing due to anxiety
  • using a ventilator to help you breath

If an underlying infection, such as pneumonia, is the cause, you’ll also be given antibiotics. In rare instances, surgery may be required to remove a tumor or other obstruction that may be affecting your ability to breathe. 

Article Sources:

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See a list of possible causes in order from the most common to the least.


Asthma Overview

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COPD Overview

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), is a lung condition usually caused by smoking. It makes breathing difficult, and wheezing, tightness in chest, and chest infections are common.

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Adult Respiratory Distress Syndrome

This condition is considered a medical emergency. Urgent care may be required.

Adult respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS) is a severe lung condition that occurs when fluid fills up the air sacs in your lungs. Common symptoms include labored breathing, fever, fast pulse, and blue skin or nails.

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Head Injury

This condition is considered a medical emergency. Urgent care may be required.

A head injury could be an injury to the brain, skull, or scalp. It can vary in severity depending on the cause. In some cases face swelling can be a sign of a head injury.

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Swallowed (or Inhaled) Foreign Object

This condition is considered a medical emergency. Urgent care may be required.

Anyone can swallow a foreign object. However, infants and toddlers have a natural tendency to put things in their mouths, which puts them at higher risk.

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Agoraphobia is an anxiety disorder that causes people to avoid situations that might cause them to feel trapped, helpless, embarrassed, or scared. It's more common in women than it is in men.

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Diabetic Ketoacidosis

This condition is considered a medical emergency. Urgent care may be required.

Diabetic ketoacidosis (DKA) is a serious complication that stems from diabetes. If you don't have enough insulin to help your body process sugars (glucose), your body will start burning fat to fuel itself. As a result...

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Skull Fractures

This condition is considered a medical emergency. Urgent care may be required.

A skull fracture is any break in the cranial bone, or the skull. It can result in bleeding, bruising, pain, and swelling. Less severe symptoms include headache, nausea, confusion, and blurred vision.

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Lung Cancer Overview

Lung cancer is a cancer that originates in the lungs. Lung cancer often goes undetected in the early stages, since symptoms don't usually present themselves until the advanced stages of the disease.

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Encephalitis is an inflammation of the brain tissue. It's most often caused by viral infections. In some cases, bacterial infections can cause encephalitis.

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Patent Ductus Arteriosus

Patent ductus arteriosus (PDA) is a fairly common congenital heart defect that is seen in about 3,000 newborns every year in the U.S. (Cleveland Clinic). It occurs when a temporary blood vessel, called the ductu...

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Croup is a viral condition that causes swelling around the vocal cords. It is characterized by breathing difficulties and a bad cough that sounds like a barking seal. Many of the viruses responsible for croup also caus...

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This feature is for informational purposes only and should not be used to diagnose.
Please consult a healthcare professional if you have health concerns.