When Shortness of Breath Is an Emergency

Medically Reviewed by Poonam Sachdev on November 22, 2023
5 min read

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 stressed out.

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

If you feel short of breath repeatedly or notice it worsening over time, make an appointment with your doctor to find out why. You may need to seek help right away.

Lung problems that affect your breathing

Asthma is a long-term disease that makes your airways swollen, inflamed, and narrow so that it’s hard to move air in and out of your lungs. Along with feeling short of breath, you may wheeze, which means you make a whistling sound when you breathe. There is no cure for asthma, but treatment can help a lot. It’s important to treat symptoms when you first notice them. That means going to the doctor.

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) may make you feel like your chest is so tight you can’t breathe. Like asthma, it can make you wheeze, too. You may cough and bring up sticky, slimy mucus. There's no cure for COPD, but there are ways to feel better. For example, your doctor may want you to use an inhaler, do breathing exercises, and learn techniques to help you breathe more easily.

Pneumonia is an infection in one or both lungs, caused by bacteria or viruses. It irritates the air sacs in your lungs, which fill up with fluid. Signs that you may have it include breathing trouble, fever, chills, and a cough with mucus. Pneumonia can make you feel very tired, and you may not feed better for quite a while. The doctor will give you antibiotics to kill the germs, and it’s very important to finish the medicine even if you feel better.

Pulmonary embolism means that something, usually a blood clot, has blocked an artery in one of your lungs. It’s a serious problem that needs medical help right away. Signs of pulmonary embolism are fast breathing, a fast heart rate, and possibly a sharp pain in your chest when you breathe in. Other signs are fever, dizziness, and leg pain or swelling.

Pulmonary fibrosis refers to scarring of the lungs that makes it hard to get enough oxygen into your body. Usually, the cause is not known, which is called idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis. Sometimes, you get it from other diseases, your genes, or when you breathe in asbestos or other industrial dust for a long time. Signs of this problem include shortness of breath, even at rest, and a dry cough. You’ll need to see your doctor to find out how you can feel better and breathe more easily.

Other reasons for shortness of breath:

Carbon monoxide poisoning is caused by breathing in carbon monoxide, a gas coming from the fumes of products containing carbon, such as fires, car exhaust, and gas stoves. The gas is odorless and colorless and can make you pass out or die.

Heart attack occurs either when there's no blood flowing to the heart or when the flow is severely blocked. This is due to a buildup of plaque in your arteries from cholesterol. Shortness of breath is one sign of a heart attack.

Low blood pressure can sometimes cause shortness of breath when there's a very low blood supply to the heart.

Panic attack symptoms include a racing heartbeat and shortness of breath, usually brought on by stress. These symptoms normally go away on their own once you calm down. But if you're not sure whether your shortness of breath is due to a panic attack or something else, then call 911.

Obesity or poor physical health

Choking on a piece of food will obstruct your airways and could block your breathing.

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

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

If you or someone you're with has any of the following 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.

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, such as 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 via an IV.

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

Your doctor may suggest medicine and other treatments for your breathing problem. But you can also take steps to help yourself:

  • Take your medicine just as the doctor prescribes it.
  • Ask your doctor about making an “action plan” that tells you what to do if you have sudden breathlessness.
  • Ask about ways to slow down your breathing and take deeper breaths.
  • Try not to rush around so much.
  • Sit in front of a fan.
  • Avoid smoking and being around smokers.