Shortness of Breath First Aid

Causes, Symptoms and Treatment for Shortness of Breath

Being short of breath (otherwise known as dyspnea or difficulty breathing) is one of the scariest medical conditions we can face. Sometimes called air hunger, shortness of breath can lead to panic and usually points to a deeper problem. There may be some things you can do to help, but help for most patients complaining of shortness of breath requires calling 911 and supporting them until the ambulance can arrive.

Shortness of Breath Causes

Anxious boy using an inhaler outdoors
Asthma is one cause of shortness of breath. Seb Oliver / Getty Images

Anything that interferes with breathing leads to either too little oxygen and/or too much carbon dioxide in the blood. The body needs some of each of these gases in our blood to function properly, but levels need to be kept in balance. We can deal with a little less oxygen for a while, but too much carbon dioxide needs to be fixed quickly.

Shortness of breath doesn't have to be caused by a medical condition. Strenuous exercise leaves you out of breath just as well. The difference is that exercise ends. Imagine if you were running a marathon and couldn't stop: that's what medical shortness of breath feels like.

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Shortness of Breath Symptoms

woman catching her breath
Tripod position and pursed lips are signs of trying to catch your breath. Getty Images

The best way to tell if someone is having trouble breathing is to ask him or her. Shortness of breath -- also known as dyspnea  -- is a feeling, so asking really is the best assessment tool. If he or she can't answer you as a result of being out of breath, it's a strong sign of trouble breathing.

There are other signs as well. Think of the marathon running mentioned above. Hands on your knees to help catch your breath is called the tripod position. Forcing your exhale to make room for the next breath makes you purse your lips, which is a great sign especially when it's subtle.

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Shortness of Breath Treatment

man with an oxygen mask
Shortness of breath is a mainstay of heart attack. Vstock LLC / Getty Images

Shortness of breath has many different causes, and the treatment of shortness of breath is specific for each cause. There are, however, some first aid steps you can use to treat shortness of breath, at least until the ambulance arrives or you are able to get the victim to a hospital.

For patients of shortness of breath, try letting the patient sit, stand or lie down in whatever position makes him or her comfortable. Don't force a position on the patient. Let the patient rest. No need for walking or any sort of exertion. Let the patient use his or her oxygen or inhaler--encourage it, even.

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Look for More Dangerous Conditions

There are so many medical conditions that can lead to shortness of breath. It's important to consider all of the worst case scenarios when you see it. The most common medical conditions that shows up as shortness of breath but isn't exactly breathing related are cardiac problems. Always consider the heart when you're confronted with a patient complaining of trouble breathing.

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