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Breathing difficulty

Contents of this page:



Alternative Names    Return to top

Shortness of breath; Breathlessness; Difficulty breathing; Dyspnea

Definition    Return to top

Breathing difficulties involve a sensation of difficult or uncomfortable breathing or a feeling of not getting enough air. See also difficulty breathing - first aid.

Considerations    Return to top

No standard definition exists for difficulty breathing. For some individuals, a sense of breathlessness may occur with only mild exercise (for example, climbing stairs) without an indication of the presence of a specific disorder. Others may have advanced lung disease and difficulty exchanging air but may never feel a sensation of shortness of breath.

In some circumstances, a small degree of breathing difficulty may be normal. Severe nasal congestion is one example. Strenuous exercise, especially when a person does not exercise regularly, is another. In many situations, however, difficulty breathing represents the presence of significant disease and should be evaluated by a health care provider immediately.

Wheezing is one form of breathing difficulty. See also rapid breathing, apnea, and other lung diseases.

Causes    Return to top

Shortness of breath has many different causes. Obstruction of the air passages of the nose, mouth, or throat may lead to difficulty breathing. Heart disease can cause breathlessness if the heart is unable to pump enough blood to supply oxygen to the body. If the brain, muscles, or other body organs do not receive enough oxygen, a sense of breathlessness may occur. Sometimes emotional distress, such as anxiety, can lead to difficulty breathing. Specific causes include the following:

Home Care    Return to top

Breathing difficulty, whether sudden or long term, should always be taken seriously. Though many causes are harmless and are easily corrected, any difficulty breathing requires a thorough medical evaluation.

Follow prescribed therapy to treat the underlying cause.

When to Contact a Medical Professional    Return to top

Go to the emergency room or call the local emergency number (such as 911) if difficulty breathing comes on suddenly or seriously interferes with breathing, or if someone completely stops breathing.

Call your provider if any of the following accompany breathing difficulties:

What to Expect at Your Office Visit    Return to top

Your health care provider will take a detailed medical history and perform a physical examination.

Medical history questions documenting breathing difficulty may include the following:

The physical examination will include a thorough examination of the lungs, heart, and upper airway passages.

Diagnostic tests that may be performed include the following:

In severe cases of difficulty breathing, hospitalization may be required. Many different medications, aimed at treating the cause of breathing difficulty, may be used in treatment.

In situations where the blood oxygen level is significantly low, supplemental oxygen is helpful. High doses of supplemental oxygen may be hazardous for some patients, however, and is not necessary in all cases of shortness of breath.

Update Date: 4/12/2007

Updated by: A.D.A.M. Editorial Team: Greg Juhn, M.T.P.W., David R. Eltz, Kelli A. Stacy. Previously reviewed by David A. Kaufman, M.D., Assistant Professor, Division of Pulmonary, Critical Care & Sleep Medicine, Mount Sinai School of Medicine, New York, NY. Review provided by VeriMed Healthcare Network (8/7/2006).

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