St. Luke's Hospital
Located in Chesterfield, MO
Main Number: 314-434-1500
Emergency Dept: 314-205-6990 Patient Billing: 888-924-9200
Find a Physician Payment Options Locations & Directions
Follow us on: facebook twitter Mobile Email Page Email Page Print Page Print Page Increase Font Size Decrease Font Size Font Size
Meet the Doctor
Spirit of Women
Community Health Needs Assessment
Home > Health Information

Multimedia Encyclopedia


    Breathing difficulties - first aid

    Difficulty breathing - first aid; Dyspnea - first aid; Shortness of breath - first aid

    Breathing difficulties can range from being short of breath, unable to take a deep breath, gasping for air, or feeling like you are not getting enough air.

    This article discusses first aid for someone who is having breathing problems.

    See also: Choking


    Breathing difficulty is almost always a medical emergency (other than feeling slightly winded from normal activity such as exercise).


    There are many different causes for breathing problems. Common causes include:

    • Anemia (low red blood cell count)
    • Asthma
    • Being at a high altitude
    • Blood clot in the lung
    • Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)
    • Collapsed lung
    • Heart attack
    • Heart disease or heart failure
    • Injury to the neck, chest wall, or lungs
    • Life-threatening allergic reaction
    • Near drowning (fluid in the lungs)
    • Pleural effusion (fluid surrounding the lungs and compressing them)
    • Respiratory infections, including pneumonia, acute bronchitis, whooping cough, croup, and others


    A person with breathing difficulty may have:

    • Bluish lips, fingers, and fingernails
    • Chest moving in an unusual way as the person breathes
    • Chest pain
    • Confusion, lightheadedness, weakness, or sleepiness
    • Cough
    • Fever
    • Gurgling, wheezing, or whistling sounds

    First Aid

    If someone is having breathing difficulty, immediately call 911 or your local emergency number, then:

    1. Check the person's airway, breathing, and pulse. If necessary, begin CPR.
    2. Loosen any tight clothing.
    3. Help the person use any prescribed medication (such as an asthma inhaler or home oxygen).
    4. Continue to monitor the person's breathing and pulse until medical help arrives. Do NOT assume that the person's condition is improving if you can no longer hear abnormal breath sounds, such as wheezing.
    5. If there are open wounds in the neck or chest, they must be closed immediately, especially if air bubbles appear in the wound. Bandage such wounds at once.
    6. A "sucking" chest wound allows air to enter the person's chest cavity with each breath. This can cause a collapsed lung. Bandage the wound with plastic wrap, a plastic bag, or gauze pads covered with petroleum jelly, sealing it except for one corner. This allows trapped air to escape from the chest, but it prevents air from entering the chest through the wound.

    DO NOT

    • Do NOT give the person food or drink.
    • Do NOT move the person if there has been a chest or airway injury, unless it is absolutely necessary.
    • Do NOT place a pillow under the person's head. This can close the airway.
    • Do NOT wait to see if the person's condition improves before getting medical help. Get help immediately.

    When to Contact a Medical Professional

    Call 911 or your local emergency number if you or someone else has difficulty breathing, especially if you notice:

    • Blue lips, fingers, or fingernails
    • Chest pain
    • Coughing up large amounts of blood
    • Dizziness or lightheadedness
    • Excessive drooling
    • Facial, tongue, or throat swelling
    • High-pitched or wheezing sounds
    • Hives
    • Inability to speak
    • Nausea or vomiting
    • Rapid or irregular heartbeat
    • Sweating

    Call your doctor right away if:

    • Shortness of breath is brought on by coughing, especially productive coughing.
    • Your child's cough has a barking sound.
    • You have a fever, green or yellow phlegm, night sweats, weight loss, loss of appetite, or swelling in your legs.
    • You are coughing up small amounts of blood.


    • Wear a medical alert tag if you have a pre-existing breathing condition, such as asthma.
    • If you have a history of severe allergic reactions, carry an epinephrine pen and wear a medical alert tag. Your doctor will teach you how to use the epinephrine pen.
    • If you have asthma or allergies, eliminate household allergy triggers like dust mites and mold.
    • Don't smoke, and keep away from secondhand smoke. Don't allow smoking in your home.
    • If you have asthma, see the article on asthma to learn ways to manage it.
    • Make sure your child obtains the whooping cough (pertussis) vaccine.
    • When traveling by airplane, get up and walk around once inevery few hoursto avoid forming blood clots in your legs. Clots can break off and lodge in your lungs. If traveling by car, stop and walk around regularly.
    • Lose weight. You are more likely to feel winded if you are overweight. You are also at greater risk for heart disease and heart attack.


    Manno M. Pediatric respiratory emergencies: upper airway obstruction and infections. In: Marx J, ed. Rosen's Emergency Medicine: Concepts and Clinical Practice. 7th ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Mosby Elsevier; 2009:chap 166.

    Thomas SH, Brown DFM. Foreign bodies. In: Marx J, ed. Rosen's Emergency Medicine: Concepts and Clinical Practice. 7th ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Mosby Elsevier; 2009:chap 57.

    Wippold FJ II. Diagnostic imaging of the larynx. In: Cummings CW, Flint PW, Haughey BH, et al, eds. Otolaryngology: Head & Neck Surgery. 5th ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Mosby Elsevier; 2010:chap 106.


    • Collapsed lung, pneumoth...


    • Epiglottis


    • Breathing


      • Collapsed lung, pneumoth...


      • Epiglottis


      • Breathing


      A Closer Look

      Self Care

        Tests for Breathing difficulties - first aid

          Review Date: 7/20/2013

          Reviewed By: Jacob L. Heller, MD, MHA, Emergency Medicine, Virginia Mason Medical Center, Seattle, Washington. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Bethanne Black, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.

          The information provided herein should not be used during any medical emergency or for the diagnosis or treatment of any medical condition. A licensed medical professional should be consulted for diagnosis and treatment of any and all medical conditions. Links to other sites are provided for information only -- they do not constitute endorsements of those other sites. © 1997- A.D.A.M., Inc. Any duplication or distribution of the information contained herein is strictly prohibited.

          A.D.A.M. content is best viewed in IE9 or above, Fire Fox and chrome browser.

          Back  |  Top
          About Us
          Contact Us
          Locations & Directions
          Quality Reports
          Annual Reports
          Honors & Awards
          Community Health Needs

          Brain & Spine
          Sleep Medicine
          Urgent Care
          Women's Services
          All Services
          Patients & Visitors
          Locations & Directions
          Find a Physician
          Tour St. Luke's
          Patient & Visitor Information
          Contact Us
          Payment Options
          Financial Assistance
          Send a Card
          Mammogram Appointments
          Health Tools
          My Personal Health
          Spirit of Women
          Health Information & Tools
          Clinical Trials
          Employer Programs -
          Passport to Wellness

          Classes & Events
          Classes & Events
          Spirit of Women
          Donate & Volunteer
          Giving Opportunities
          Physicians & Employees
          For Physicians
          Remote Access
          Medical Residency Information
          Pharmacy Residency Information
          Physician CPOE Training
          St. Luke's Hospital - 232 South Woods Mill Road - Chesterfield, MO 63017 Main Number: 314-434-1500 Emergency Dept: 314-205-6990 Patient Billing: 888-924-9200
          Copyright © St. Luke's Hospital Website Terms and Conditions  |  Privacy Policy  |  Notice of Privacy Practices PDF  |  Patient Rights PDF Sitemap St. Luke's Mobile