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
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
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.
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
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.
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
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.