Dyspnea – First Aid for Difficulty Breathing
A person who has difficulty breathing is having trouble moving air in or out of the lungs. This can be the result of an airway obstruction, disease, severe allergic reaction, injury, or other medical condition.
What are the causes and risks of the injury?
The causes of difficulty breathing can vary. Causes can be associated with medical diseases and conditions that narrow the airways, such as:
emphysema, a chronic lung disease in which the air sacs are destroyed, seen mostly in smokers
chronic bronchitis, a chronic lung disease also seen in smokers, that is marked by persistent coughing up of sputum from the lungs
asthma, a lung disease in which the overly-sensitive airways become narrowed in response to various triggers
Other causes of difficulty breathing include:
crush injuries to the chest or airways, such as those resulting from a motor vehicle accident or a sports injury
pneumothorax, or collapsed lung
congestive heart failure, a condition in which the weakened heart is unable to pump enough blood to body organs
heart disease, and abnormalities in any of the heart valves
adjustment to a high altitude
an obstruction in the airway, as in the case of a person who is choking
Symptoms & Signs
What are the signs and symptoms of the injury?
The signs and symptoms of difficulty breathing are:
wheezing, which is a squeaking sound made when the person breathes out
shortness of breath, or the feeling of not getting enough air
dizziness, or light-headedness
pale or bluish lips and fingernails
gurgling sounds in the chest
person clutching his or her throat or chest
coughing up blood
coughing up frothy, white material
Diagnosis & Tests
How is the injury recognized?
Diseases such as emphysema, chronic bronchitis, and asthma are diagnosed with pulmonary function tests and chest X-rays. Heart disease and congestive heart failure are diagnosed with chest X-rays, blood tests, an ECG or electrocardiogram, and a physical examination. A collapsed lung is diagnosed with a chest X-ray. Injuries to the chest are diagnosed by chest X-ray and by physical examination.
Prevention & Expectations
What can be done to prevent the injury?
Some of the ways to prevent breathing difficulties include:
following sports safety guidelines for children, adolescents, and adults
working closely with the healthcare provider to control diseases and conditions such as congestive heart failure and asthma
wearing seat belts in a moving vehicle
being careful when going to a higher altitude
Treatment & Monitoring
What are the treatments for the injury?
First aid is the most common treatment for someone having difficulty breathing.
Assist the person in using oxygen or an inhaler for lung disease, if appropriate.
Check for signs of circulation, such as normal breathing, coughing, or movement in response to stimulation.
Contact the emergency medical system immediately.
Start cardiopulmonary resuscitation, or CPR, if the person stops breathing. Use 15 chest compressions for every 2 mouth-to-mouth rescue breaths.
Stay with the person until medical assistance arrives.
Assume there may be other injuries if wounds are bad enough to injure the chest. Do not allow the person to move around. Try to firmly support the injured area without moving the head, neck, or spine. In some instances, to help a person breathe, the head and back may need to be moved. Maintaining an open airway and keeping the person breathing is most important.
If bubbles appear in the wound, there is probably an injury to the lung. Bandage the wound at once.
Bandage the wound with something that will not allow air into the wound if bubbles appear or there is a “sucking” sound. Plastic wrap or a plastic bag will work. Air needs to escape through the wound, so leave one corner open. The best way to seal the bandage is with petroleum jelly around three sides, leaving one corner free.
Do not let the person eat or drink anything.
Try not to move the person, and obtain medical assistance as soon as possible.
What are the side effects of the treatments?
If the person has suffered a major injury, treating his or her breathing problem may cause an injury to some other organ. Helping the person breath may cause further injuries to the neck or back. Maintaining an open airway and keeping the person breathing is most important.
What happens after treatment for the injury?
A person who has difficulty breathing should carry a medical identification tag listing his or her existing medical conditions. He or she should keep a medication list handy. Any medications required for immediate help should be carried at all times.