What Does Difficulty Breathing Feel Like?
Difficulty breathing (dyspnea) may be characterized by shortness of breath, difficulty getting a breath in, or pain when breathing and can be a sign of a serious medical condition. Shortness of breath may be acute (sudden dyspnea) or chronic (long-term dyspnea).
If it is hard to breathe it’s important to see a doctor to diagnose the cause and receive proper treatment. Some causes of breathing difficulty can be life-threatening.
What Are Symptoms of Difficulty Breathing?
Symptoms of difficulty breathing include:
- Shortness of breath
- Pain when breathing
- Feeling unable to breathe properly/inhale deeply
- Rapid, shallow breathing
- Increased effort to breathe
- “Air hunger”
- Heavy breathing
- Feeling of suffocation
Symptoms that may accompany difficulty breathing include:
- Chest pain/tightness
- Blue lips or nails
- Pale skin
- Sputum production
- Stuffy nose
- Swelling of extremities
- Raynaud’s phenomenon (cool blue extremities)
- Joint swelling
- Muscle weakness
When it’s hard to breathe, see a doctor immediately or call 911 if you have difficulty breathing and:
- Symptoms have a sudden onset
- Pain or pressure in the chest
- Swelling in your feet and ankles
- Trouble breathing when you lie flat
- Is associated with itching, hives, or facial/lip swelling
- Feeling like your throat is swollen
- Shortness of breath becomes more severe
- Lightheadedness or feeling faint
- Is accompanied by severe confusion, chest or jaw pain, or pain down your arm
What Causes Difficulty Breathing?
Emergency causes for difficulty breathing include:
- Head, eyes, ears, nose, and throat (HEENT):
- Pulmonary (lung-related)
- Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)
- Asthma exacerbation
- Blood clot in the lung (pulmonary embolism, or PE)
- Collapsed lung (pneumothorax)
- Lung infection by bacteria, virus or fungus
- COVID-19 coronavirus infection
- Acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS)
- Pulmonary contusion or other lung injury
- Bleeding (hemorrhage)
- Cardiac (heart-related)
- Neuromuscular disease
The five most common causes of chronic breathing difficulty (dyspnea) include:
How Is Difficulty Breathing Diagnosed?
It is important to diagnose the underlying cause of why it is hard to breathe in order to determine treatment. In addition to a physical examination, tests may include:
- Chest X-ray
- Electrocardiogram (ECG)
- Blood tests
- Cardiac biomarkers (e.g., troponin I)
- Brain natriuretic peptide (BNP)
- Arterial and venous blood gas
- Carbon dioxide monitoring
- Chest computerized tomography scan (CT)
- Pulmonary ventilation/perfusion (V/Q) scan
- Negative inspiratory force (NIF)
- Multidetector computed tomography (MDCT) scan of the chest
- Peak flow and pulmonary function tests (PFTs)
Tests for chronic shortness of breath depend on the suspected cause and may include any of the above tests, as well as:
What Is the Treatment for Difficulty Breathing?
Treatment for acute difficulty breathing in an emergency setting usually includes:
- Determining if the patient needs emergency airway management and ventilatory support
- Establishing the most likely causes of the difficulty breathing and initiating treatment
Treatment for chronic breathing problems varies widely depending on the cause. For example:
- If chronic difficulty breathing is caused by asthma, that may be treated with medications such as bronchodilators or inhaled steroids
- If chronic difficulty breathing is caused by a blood clot (pulmonary embolism), you may need blood thinners
- If chronic difficulty breathing is caused by fluid in the lungs, that fluid may need to be drained
What Are Complications of Difficulty Breathing?
Complications of difficulty breathing include:
- Low blood oxygen (hypoxia)
- Loss of consciousness
- Brain Damage
- Cognitive impairment
How Do You Prevent Difficulty Breathing?
Some causes of difficulty breathing may be prevented, and in doing so, this will prevent difficulty breathing from developing or worsening.
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