Labored breathing has a variety of causes, some of which include medical emergencies. Seek help if it’s accompanied by symptoms like wheezing, gasping, or skin discoloration.
Unless you’re running a marathon, breathing may not be something you usually 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.
Other terms for labored breathing include:
- trouble breathing
- difficulty breathing
- uncomfortable breathing
- working hard to breathe
Labored breathing may be accompanied by shortness of breath, or the subjective feeling that you cannot get enough air.
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.
Sometimes labored breathing lasts longer. You can’t expect it to subside within a certain amount of time.
There are numerous causes of labored breathing. Not all of them are specifically related to the lungs. Seeking medical treatment to identify the cause can help you get back to breathing normally.
Labored breathing can have many causes.
Some are related to chronic conditions, including:
- amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease
- cardiomyopathy, which affects the heart muscle
- chronic bronchitis
- chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)
- congestive heart failure
- coronary artery disease
- Guillain-Barré syndrome, an autoimmune condition
- lung cancer
- myasthenia gravis, a neuromuscular condition
- pulmonary edema, or fluid-filled lungs
- pulmonary fibrosis, or lung scarring
- pulmonary hypertension
- sarcoidosis, which causes the growth of inflammatory cells in organs like the lungs
- stable angina
- ventricular dysfunction, which can affect how your heart pumps blood
But even if labored breathing is not a symptom of a chronic condition, that does not mean it’s fine.
Acute conditions or conditions with symptoms that come on suddenly may also result in labored breathing. Examples include:
- carbon monoxide poisoning
- fluid buildup around the lungs or heart due to pleural effusion or pericardial effusion
- heart attack
- pneumothorax, or collapsed lung
- upper airway obstruction from choking
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.
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 medical attention before your condition worsens can protect your health and your airways.
Other symptoms associated with labored breathing that also require medical attention include:
Children can also experience labored breathing. Symptoms that warrant immediate medical attention for children include:
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 the worsening of that condition.
Additional diagnostic tests that may help them diagnose labored breathing include:
- Physical exam: A 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: An X-ray produces an image of your lungs so the doctor can look for any potential obstructions, fluid buildup, or symptoms of pneumonia.
- CT scan: This imaging test provides a detailed view of the lungs and other organs, which helps the doctor identify abnormalities.
- Blood tests: A complete blood count (CBC) can determine how many oxygen-carrying red blood cells you have. An arterial blood gas (ABG) test is another blood test that can indicate how much oxygen is present in the blood.
Treatment for labored breathing depends upon the underlying cause and the severity of your symptoms.
- administering breathing treatments or medications to open up closed airways
- receiving oxygen therapy to increase the amount of available oxygen in the air
- taking certain medications if you’re experiencing labored breathing due to anxiety
- using a ventilator to help you breathe
If an underlying infection, like pneumonia, is the cause, you’ll also receive antibiotics.
In rare instances, you may require surgery to remove a tumor or other obstruction that may be affecting your ability to breathe.
Labored breathing has many causes. If you’re experiencing labored breathing, talk with a doctor. They’ll work with you to identify a cause and recommend a treatment plan so you can get back to breathing normally.