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first aid for difficulty breathing

Alternative Names 
difficulty breathing, shortness of breath, dyspnoea

A person who has difficulty breathing is having trouble moving air in or out of the lungs. This can be the result of an airway obstruction, disease, severe allergic reaction, injury, or other medical condition.

What are the signs and symptoms of the injury? 
The signs and symptoms of difficulty breathing are:
  • wheezing, which is a squeaking sound made when the person breathes out
  • shortness of breath, or the feeling of not getting enough air
  • confusion
  • weakness
  • dizziness, or light-headedness
  • pale or bluish lips and fingernails
  • gurgling sounds in the chest
  • cough
  • anxiety
  • person clutching his or her throat or chest
  • coughing up blood
  • coughing up frothy, white material
What are the causes and risks of the injury? 
The causes of difficulty breathing can vary. Causes can be associated with medical diseases and conditions that narrow the airways, such as:
  • emphysema, a chronic lung disease in which the air sacs are destroyed, seen mostly in smokers
  • chronic bronchitis, a chronic lung disease also seen in smokers, that is marked by persistent coughing up of sputum from the lungs
  • asthma, a lung disease in which the overly-sensitive airways become narrowed in response to various triggers
Other causes of difficulty breathing include:
  • crush injuries to the chest or airways, such as those resulting from a motor vehicle accident or a sports injury
  • pneumothorax, or collapsed lung
  • congestive heart failure, a condition in which the weakened heart is unable to pump enough blood to body organs
  • heart disease, and abnormalities in any of the heart valves
  • adjustment to a high altitude
  • an obstruction in the airway, as in the case of a person who is choking
What can be done to prevent the injury? 
Some of the ways to prevent breathing difficulties include: How is the injury recognised? 
Diseases such as emphysema, chronic bronchitis, and asthma are diagnosed with pulmonary function tests and chest X-rays. Heart disease and congestive heart failure are diagnosed with chest X-rays, blood tests, an ECG or electrocardiogram, and a physical examination. A collapsed lung is diagnosed with a chest X-ray. Injuries to the chest are diagnosed by chest X-ray and by physical examination.

What are the treatments for the injury? 
First aid is the most common treatment for someone having difficulty breathing.
  • Assist the person in using oxygen or an inhaler for lung disease, if appropriate.
  • Check for signs of circulation, such as normal breathing, coughing, or movement in response to stimulation.
  • Contact the emergency medical system immediately.
  • Start cardiopulmonary resuscitation, or CPR, if the person stops breathing. Use 15 chest compressions for every 2 mouth-to-mouth rescue breaths.
  • Stay with the person until medical assistance arrives.
  • Assume there may be other injuries if wounds are bad enough to injure the chest. Do not allow the person to move around. Try to firmly support the injured area without moving the head, neck, or spine. In some instances, to help a person breathe, the head and back may need to be moved. Maintaining an open airway and keeping the person breathing is most important.
  • If bubbles appear in the wound, there is probably an injury to the lung. Bandage the wound at once.
  • Bandage the wound with something that will not allow air into the wound if bubbles appear or there is a "sucking" sound. Plastic wrap or a plastic bag will work. Air needs to escape through the wound, so leave one corner open. The best way to seal the bandage is with petroleum jelly around three sides, leaving one corner free.
  • Do not let the person eat or drink anything.
  • Try not to move the person, and obtain medical assistance as soon as possible.
What are the side effects of the treatments? 
If the person has suffered a major injury, treating his or her breathing problem may cause an injury to some other organ. Helping the person breath may cause further injuries to the neck or back. Maintaining an open airway and keeping the person breathing is most important.

What happens after treatment for the injury? 
A person who has difficulty breathing should carry a medical identification tag listing his or her existing medical conditions. He or she should keep a medication list handy. Any medications required for immediate help should be carried at all times.

Author: James Broomfield, MD
Reviewer: eknowhow Australia Medical Review Panel
Editor: Dr John Hearne
Last Updated: 20/09/2004
Potential conflict of interest information for reviewers available on request

This website and article is not a substitute for independent professional advice. Nothing contained in this website is intended to be used as medical advice and it is not intended to be used to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease, nor should it be used for therapeutic purposes or as a substitute for your own health professional's advice.  All Health and any associated parties do not accept any liability for any injury, loss or damage incurred by use of or reliance on the information.

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