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.
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.
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.