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Breathing difficulty

Definition

Breathing difficulty may involve:

Alternative Names

Shortness of breath; Breathlessness; Difficulty breathing; Dyspnea

Considerations

No standard definition exists for difficulty breathing. Some people may feel breathless with only mild exercise (for example, climbing stairs), even though they do not have a medical condition. Others may have advanced lung disease but never feel short of breath.

Wheezing is one form of breathing difficulty in which you make a high-pitched sound when you breathe out.

Causes

Shortness of breath has many different causes. For example, heart disease can cause breathlessness if your heart is unable to pump enough blood to supply oxygen to your body. If your brain, muscles, or other body organs do not get enough oxygen, a sense of breathlessness may occur.

Breathing difficulty may also be due to problems with the lungs, airways, or other health problems.

Problems with the lungs:

Problems with the airways leading to the lungs:

Problems with the heart:

Other:

Home Care

Sometimes, mild breathing difficulty may be normal and is not cause for concern. A very stuffy nose is one example. Strenuous exercise, especially when you do not exercise often, is another example.

If breathing difficulty is new or is getting worse, it may be due to a serious problem. Though many causes are not dangerous and are easily treated, call your health care provider for any breathing difficulty.

If you are being treated for a long-term problem with your lungs or heart, follow your health care provider's directions to help with that problem.

When to Contact a Medical Professional

Go to the emergency room or call the local emergency number (such as 911) if:

See your health care provider if any of the following occur with breathing difficulties:

What to Expect at Your Office Visit

The doctor or nurse will examine you and ask about your medical history and symptoms:

Tests that may be ordered include:

If the breathing difficulty is severe, you may need to go to a hospital. You may receive medicines to treat the cause of breathing difficulty.

If your blood oxygen level is very low, you may need oxygen.

References

Kraft M. Approach to the patient with respiratory disease. In: Goldman L, Schafer AI, eds. Goldman’s Cecil Medicine. 24th ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Elsevier Saunders; 2011:chap 83.



Review Date: 4/21/2013
Reviewed By: David C. Dugdale, III, MD, Professor of Medicine, Division of General Medicine, Department of Medicine, University of Washington School of Medicine. Also reviewed by A.D.A.M. Health Solutions, Ebix, Inc., Editorial Team: David Zieve, MD, MHA, Bethanne Black, Stephanie Slon, and Nissi Wang.
The information provided herein should not be used during any medical emergency or for the diagnosis or treatment of any medical condition. A licensed medical professional should be consulted for diagnosis and treatment of any and all medical conditions. Links to other sites are provided for information only -- they do not constitute endorsements of those other sites. © 1997- A.D.A.M., Inc. Any duplication or distribution of the information contained herein is strictly prohibited.
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