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Breathing difficulties - first aid

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

Most people take breathing for granted. People with certain illnesses may have breathing problems that they deal with on a regular basis.

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

Breathing difficulties can range from:

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Collapsed lung, pneumothorax
Epiglottis
Breathing

I Would Like to Learn About:

Considerations

Breathing difficulty is almost always a medical emergency. An exception is feeling slightly winded from normal activity, such as exercise.

Causes

There are many different causes for breathing problems. Common causes include some health conditions and sudden medical emergencies.

Some health conditions that may cause breathing problems are:

Some medical emergencies that can cause breathing problems are:

Symptoms

People having breathing difficulty will often look uncomfortable. They may be:

They might have other symptoms, including:

If an allergy is causing the breathing problem, they might have a rash or swelling of the face, tongue, or throat.

If an injury is causing breathing difficulty, they might be bleeding or have a visible wound.

First Aid

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

Do Not

DO NOT:

When to Contact a Medical Professional

Call 911 or your local emergency number if you or someone else has any of the symptoms of difficult breathing, in the Symptoms section above.

Also call your doctor or health care provider right away if you:

Also call your provider if your child has a cough and is making a barking sound or wheezing.

Prevention

Some things you can do to help prevent breathing problems:

Wear a medical alert tag if you have a pre-existing breathing condition, such as asthma.

Related Information

Abdominal thrusts

References

Rose E. Pediatric respiratory emergencies: upper airway obstruction and infections. In: Walls RM, Hockberger RS, Gausche-Hill M, eds. Rosen's Emergency Medicine: Concepts and Clinical Practice. 9th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier; 2018:chap 167.

Schwartzstein RM, Adams L. Dyspnea. In: Broaddus VC, Ernst JD, King TE, et al, eds. Murray and Nadel's Textbook of Respiratory Medicine. 7th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier; 2022:chap 36.

Thomas SH, Goodloe JM. Foreign bodies. In: Walls RM, Hockberger RS, Gausche-Hill M, eds. Rosen's Emergency Medicine: Concepts and Clinical Practice. 9th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier; 2018:chap 53.

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Review Date: 2/12/2021  

Reviewed By: Jesse Borke, MD, CPE, FAAEM, FACEP, Attending Physician at Kaiser Permanente, Orange County, CA. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, Brenda Conaway, Editorial Director, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.

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