It is quite normal to get a little out of breath while overexerting yourself. Sudden breathing difficulty (dyspnoea), however, is usually a sign of a potentially serious medical condition or emergency. The first step in assisting someone with breathing difficulties is therefore to
immediately dial 999 and request an ambulance.
Medical emergencies likely to cause breathing difficulties include, for example:
- Severe allergic reaction
- Near drowning causing fluid build-up within the lungs
- Injuries to the chest wall, lungs, or neck
- Heart attack
- Collapsed lung (pneumothorax)
- Blood clot inside the lung
- Being affected by high altitude
Exposure to toxic fumes as a result of accidents at work can also cause problems breathing, as well as industrial illnesses, like COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease), for instance.
Health conditions likely to cause someone to have problems breathing include:
- Pleural effusion: surrounding fluid compressing the lungs
- Pericardial effusion: surrounding fluid not allowing the heart to fill properly
- Lung cancer or cancers that have spread into the lungs
- Heart failure
- Heart disease
- COPD, which is sometimes also called chronic bronchitis or emphysema
- Anaemia: low count of red blood cells
Acute bronchitis, croup, pneumonia, whooping cough and other respiratory infections may also cause breathing problems.
Treating someone with breathing difficulties
To assist someone struggling to breathe, call an ambulance, then:
- Check their airway, pulse and breathing and, if necessary, commence CPR
- Loosen tight clothing
- If applicable, help them use their prescribed medicine, such as home oxygen, emergency heart medication, asthma inhaler or Epi-Pen, which is an epinephrine auto-injector for allergy sufferers
- Continue monitoring pulse and breathing until emergency services arrive
- Assume their condition is improving because wheezing or other abnormal breath sounds
can no longer be heard
- Give them drinks or food
- Move them if they have an airway or chest injury
- Place pillows under their head, as this can close airways
Open chest or neck wounds must be bandaged immediately, especially when there are air bubbles appearing in the wound.
Seal the wound, except for a single corner, with petroleum jelly-covered gauze, a plastic bag or plastic wrap to prevent air from getting into the chest. The unsealed corner will allow air trapped in the chest to escape.
Breathing problems at work
If you developed a work-related illness, experienced breathing difficulties or were otherwise injured by a work accident for which someone else was responsible, you may qualify for work injury compensation.
Call us, Accident Advice Helpline, for useful advice and legal assistance by one of our in-house solicitors now. Our freephone line is 0800 689 0500 from landlines, or 0333 500 0993 from mobiles.
Date Published: April 6, 2016
Author: Accident Advice