What are Breathing Difficulties? Causes, Symptoms, & Treatment

When you can't breathe, it feels like the world's end. Breathing difficulties are scary, but they're also fairly common and often not as serious as they feel at the time. If you have trouble catching your breath or feel like there isn't enough air in the room when you're indoors, you may be having breathing difficulty. Such as hyperventilation can trigger shortness of breath and make you feel suffocating.

Thankfully, these conditions are uncommon and aren't nearly as scary as they sound. Most people who experience breathing difficulties get through them with no lasting effects. If you're concerned about yours, see your doctor for further evaluation and advice on managing your symptoms.

Signs and Symptoms of Breathing Difficulties

If you feel like you can't catch your breath, it's important to distinguish between breathlessness and shortness of breath. Breathlessness is an overwhelming feeling of needing to catch your breath. This comes on suddenly and has no specific trigger.

It's generally a sign of anxiety or stress and will pass as your body responds to your heightened state of arousal. On the other hand, breathing difficulties are sudden and specific sensations of not getting enough air, especially while you're at rest. Some common signs and symptoms of breathing difficulties include: 

  • A feeling like there's not enough air in the room, even if others don't notice it. 
  • Shortness of breath that doesn't go away, even after you've calmed yourself down. 
  • You feel like you have to take very deep breaths to get enough air. 
  • Shortness of breath during exercise. 
  • Shortness of breath accompanied by wheezing, coughing, or sharp chest pain
  • You feel like you have to take very shallow breaths to get enough air. 
  • You are feeling dizzy, lightheaded, or faint. 
  • You are feeling like you're choking or are going to pass out. 
  • You are feeling nauseous, especially right after you've caught your breath.

Causes & Risk Factors for Breathing Difficulties

Not all breathing difficulties are something to be worried about. Some are normal consequences of exercise, stress, or hot weather, while others are signs of a medical condition. You may experience difficulty breathing if you have a cold, allergies, or sinusitis. Blocked airways, for example, can cause breathing difficulties.

Asthma, emphysema, and bronchitis can also block your airways, making it hard for you to breathe. Breathing difficulties can also be caused by anxiety or hyperventilation. Anxiety can cause you to hyperventilate, which floods your body with extra oxygen and leads to shortness of breath.

Other signs of hyperventilation include dizziness, lightheadedness, and palpitations. Breathing difficulties can sometimes be a side effect of certain medical conditions. For example, COPD, asthma, emphysema, and cystic fibrosis can make breathing harder.

How are Breathing Difficulties Diagnosed?

Breathing difficulties can be diagnosed by a doctor who has taken a detailed medical history and performed a physical exam. This doctor may also order blood, imaging, or breathing tests to help diagnose and treat the problem. If an allergy causes your breathing difficulties, your doctor may recommend an antihistamine.

If your doctor thinks you may have asthma, they may recommend a rescue inhaler. If your doctor thinks you may have COPD, they may recommend a breathing treatment. If your doctor thinks you're hyperventilating, they may recommend breathing exercises.

Treatment Options for Breathing Difficulties

If you experience breathing difficulties, your doctor may recommend lifestyle changes to manage your symptoms. They may suggest you avoid triggers like allergens and strong scents, exercise regularly, and eat plenty of fruits and vegetables. Your doctor may also recommend using prescribed medication to manage your symptoms.

If an underlying medical condition causes your breathing difficulties, your doctor will likely prescribe medication to treat that condition. Your doctor may also suggest making lifestyle changes to complement your medication.

Conclusion: First Aid for Breathing Difficulties

Breathing difficulties can be scary, but they're generally not anything to worry about. If you're experiencing shortness of breath, don't panic; It's likely a minor condition that can be treated with self-care. Most people get through breathing difficulties with no lasting effects. If you're worried about your breathing difficulties and aren't sure what's causing them, schedule an appointment with your doctor. They can help you manage your symptoms and identify and treat the problem.

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