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Breathing difficulties - first aid

Epiglottis
Breathing

Definition

Breathing difficulties can range from being short of breath, unable to take a deep breath, gasping for air, or feeling like you are not getting enough air.

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

See also: Choking

Alternative Names

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

Considerations

Breathing difficulty is almost always a medical emergency (other than feeling slightly winded from normal activity such as exercise).

Causes

There are many different causes for breathing problems. Common causes include:

Symptoms

A person with breathing difficulty may have:

First Aid

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

  1. Check the person's airway, breathing, and pulse. If necessary, begin CPR.
  2. Loosen any tight clothing.
  3. Help the person use any prescribed medication (such as an asthma inhaler or home oxygen).
  4. Continue to monitor the person's breathing and pulse until medical help arrives. Do NOT assume that the person's condition is improving if you can no longer hear abnormal breath sounds, such as wheezing.
  5. If there are open wounds in the neck or chest, they must be closed immediately, especially if air bubbles appear in the wound. Bandage such wounds at once.
  6. A "sucking" chest wound allows air to enter the person's chest cavity with each breath. This can cause a collapsed lung. Bandage the wound with plastic wrap, a plastic bag, or gauze pads covered with petroleum jelly, sealing it except for one corner. This allows trapped air to escape from the chest, but it prevents air from entering the chest through the wound.

DO NOT

When to Contact a Medical Professional

Call 911 or your local emergency number if you or someone else has difficulty breathing, especially if you notice:

Call your doctor right away if:

Prevention

References

Manno M. Pediatric respiratory emergencies: upper airway obstruction and infections. In: Marx J, ed. Rosen's Emergency Medicine: Concepts and Clinical Practice. 7th ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Mosby Elsevier; 2009:chap 166.

Thomas SH, Brown DFM. Foreign bodies. In: Marx J, ed. Rosen's Emergency Medicine: Concepts and Clinical Practice. 7th ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Mosby Elsevier; 2009:chap 57.

Wippold FJ II. Diagnostic imaging of the larynx. In: Cummings CW, Flint PW, Haughey BH, et al, eds. Otolaryngology: Head & Neck Surgery. 5th ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Mosby Elsevier; 2010:chap 106.


Review Date: 7/20/2013
Reviewed By: Jacob L. Heller, MD, MHA, Emergency Medicine, Virginia Mason Medical Center, Seattle, Washington. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Bethanne Black, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.