Breathing Difficulty

Is this your symptom?

  • Trouble breathing

Key Points

  • Trouble breathing is a serious symptom.
  • People with trouble breathing that is new or worse than usual should see or call their doctor right away.
  • Trouble breathing is most often caused by heart or lung problems.

Causes

  • Anaphylaxis
  • Anemia
  • Anxiety and hyperventilation
  • Asthma
  • Heart failure
  • Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)
  • Diabetic ketoacidosis
  • Pneumonia
  • Pulmonary embolism (blood clot in lung)
  • Spontaneous pneumothorax (collapsed lung)
  • Upper respiratory infection

Severity of Trouble Breathing is defined as:

  • Mild: Not short of breath at rest; mild shortness of breath with walking; able to speak in full sentences, can lay down flat; pulse less than 100 beats per minute.
  • Moderate: Short of breath even at rest; gets worse with walking; prefers to sit, cannot lie down flat; able to speak in short phrases; pulse over 100 beats per minute.
  • Severe: Very short of breath at rest; struggling to breathe; able to speak only in single words; sitting hunched forward; pulse over 100 beats per minute.

When to Call for Breathing Difficulty

Call 911 Now

  • Severe trouble breathing (struggling for each breath or can't speak)
  • Choking right now
  • Lips or face are blue
  • Trouble waking up or acting confused
  • Passed out (fainted)
  • Wheezing starts right after a bee sting, taking medicine, or eating an allergic food
  • Slow, shallow, and weak breathing
  • You think you have a life-threatening emergency

Call Doctor Now or Go to ER

  • Mild trouble breathing (able to speak in full sentences, short of breath at rest) that is new or worse than usual
  • Long-term trouble breathing (COPD, emphysema, heart failure) and worse now
  • Long-term trouble breathing and not better after usual treatment
  • Wheezing
  • Non-stop coughing
  • Fever over 103° F (39.4° C)
  • Fever and over 60 years old
  • Fever and have diabetes
  • Fever and have a weak immune system (such as HIV, cancer chemo, long-term steroids, splenectomy, transplant)
  • Pregnant
  • Postpartum (less than 1 month since giving birth)
  • You feel weak or very sick
  • You think you need to be seen, and the problem is urgent

Call Doctor Within 24 Hours

  • Moderate trouble breathing (speak in phrases, shortness of breath at rest) AND same as usual (not worse)

Call Doctor During Office Hours

  • Mild trouble breathing (able to speak in full sentences, short of breath rest) AND same as usual (not worse)

Care Advice While Waiting to See Doctor

  1. What You Should Know:
    • Trouble breathing is a serious symptom.
    • People with trouble breathing that is new or worse than usual should see or call their doctor right away
    • Trouble breathing is most often caused by heart or lung problems.
    • Here is some care advice that should help.
  2. General Care Advice for Breathing Difficulty:
    • Find a position that makes it easier to breathe. Often people with trouble breathing prefer sitting up. This can be in a comfortable chair or lying back against pillows.
    • Create a slight air draft. Use a fan pointed at the face, or open a window.
    • Keep room temperature slightly on the cool side.
    • Use a humidifier.
    • Avoid being around smoke or fume exposure.
    • Move slowly. Avoid too much activity.
  3. Fever Medicine:
    • For fevers above 101° F (38.3° C) take acetaminophen (Tylenol) or ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin).
    • They are over-the-counter (OTC) fever drugs. You can buy them at the drugstore.
    • The goal for treating fever is to bring it down to a comfortable level.
    • Fever medicine usually lowers fevers by 2° F (1 - 1.5° C).
    • Use the lowest amount of a drug that makes your fever get better.
    • Acetaminophen is safer than ibuprofen or naproxen in people over 65 years old.
    • Read the instructions and warnings on the package insert for all medicines you take.
  4. Call Your Doctor If:
    • You think you need to be seen
    • You get worse

And remember, contact your doctor if you develop any of the 'Call Your Doctor' symptoms.

Disclaimer: This information is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice. It is provided for educational purposes only. You assume full responsibility for how you choose to use this information.


Last Reviewed: 10/18/2017 1:25:57 AM
Last Updated: 5/17/2017 5:42:31 PM

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