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When Shortness of Breath Is an Emergency

Medically Reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD on December 14, 2020

When you feel like you can't breathe deeply enough, can't get enough air, or are working too hard to breathe, you have shortness of breath. Doctors sometimes call it dyspnea.

Everyone gets a little short of breath sometimes. It might happen when you exercise hard, have a cold, or are feeling stressed out.

Some medical conditions can cause shortness of breath, too. They include asthma, allergies, heart disease, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), and COVID-19.

If you feel short of breath repeatedly, or it seems to be getting worse over time, make an appointment with your doctor to find out why.

But if you suddenly find you can’t catch your breath, it could be a medical emergency. You may need to seek help right away.

When to Call 911

If you or someone you're with has any of these symptoms, call 911 or go to the emergency room right away:

  • Your breathing trouble is sudden and serious.
  • It doesn't get better when you rest.
  • You feel discomfort or pain in your chest.
  • You inhaled food or an object that's affecting your breathing.
  • Your lips or nails have a blue or gray tint.
  • You feel faint or nauseated.
  • You're confused or drowsy.
  • You cough up blood.
  • You have a fever or chills.
  • You can’t sleep or do another activity because of your breathing.
  • Your heart is beating much faster than usual.

Also seek medical help right away for sudden shortness of breath if you have a history of bronchitis, pneumonia, chronic asthma, or another respiratory condition.

Shortness of Breath Emergencies

Breathing trouble is one of the most common reasons people seek help at a hospital emergency room.

In the United States, up to 4 million emergency room visits each year involve shortness of breath. One study found that 13% of all emergency medical service (EMS) calls are for breathing problems.

What to Expect

Often, the first thing a doctor, nurse, or emergency medical technician will do is give you extra oxygen (called oxygen therapy).

You get it through tubes in your nose or windpipe, or through a mask placed over your nose and mouth. This helps get more oxygen into your lungs and bloodstream. Your blood oxygen levels will be monitored to make sure you're getting enough.

Lots of things can cause shortness of breath. So the emergency staff will try to quickly figure out why you're having trouble breathing. They'll examine you and ask questions about your health history and how you feel. They may do imaging tests, like ultrasounds or X-rays.

Depending on what caused your shortness of breath, they may give you various kinds of medication. You might get them through an inhaler or through an IV.

If a long-lasting condition like COPD or asthma led to your breathing problems, you'll need follow-up care from your doctor. The right treatment plan can help prevent shortness of breath.

WebMD Medical Reference

Sources

SOURCES:

CDC: "Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD): Basics About COPD."

Respiratory Care: "Use of High-Flow Nasal Cannula for Acute Dyspnea and Hypoxemia in the Emergency Department."

Emergency Medicine Clinics of North America: "Management of Acute Exacerbation of Asthma and Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease in the Emergency Department," "Approach to Adult Patients with Acute Dyspnea."

Postgraduate Medicine: "Pathophysiology of dyspnea in COPD."

American Lung Association: "Learn About Shortness of Breath."

Institute for Quality and Efficiency in Health Care: "Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD): Overview"

Mayo Clinic: "Symptoms: Shortness of Breath: When to See a Doctor."

MaineHealth: "COPD -- When to call your primary care provider (PCP) or go to the Emergency room if your breathing gets worse."

HCA Midwest Health Administration: "Should I Go to the ER With Shortness of Breath?"

National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute: "COPD."

Harvard Medical School: "COVID-19 basics."

Rush University System for Health: "Trouble Breathing (Dyspnea)."

HealthOne: "When to go to the ER for shortness of breath."

Society for Academic Emergency Medicine: "Shortness of Breath."

UpToDate: "Patient education: Shortness of breath (dyspnea) (Beyond the Basics)."

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