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What are breathing difficulties?

Breathing is a mechanical process in which rib bone muscles and the diaphragm pull air into the lungs and force it back out of the lungs. Healthy resting adults breathe 12-15 times per minute. Breathing is a critical component of respiration, a process in which oxygen from the air is taken into the body and carbon dioxide is removed from the body and released into the air.

Breathing difficulties are symptoms of a variety of mild to serious underlying disorders, diseases and conditions that interfere with normal respiration and breathing. Breathing difficulties, sometimes called dyspnea, can be caused by infection, inflammation, trauma, malignancy, airway obstruction and other abnormal processes.

Common breathing difficulties include:

  • Crackles, a bubbling, crackling or clicking sound made in the lower airways of the lungs. Crackles can be caused by pneumonia, pulmonary edema, pulmonary fibrosis, and acute bronchitis.

  • Shortness of breath or trouble catching your breath with or without exertion

  • Stridor, a high-pitched sound made during breathing, often caused by some kind of blockage in the throat. Stridor can be caused by epiglottitis, smoke inhalation, swelling of the throat, tonsils or adenoids, or choking on a foreign object, such as a bone.

  • Wheezing, a whistling sound made by narrowing of the air passages in the lungs. Wheezing can be caused by asthma, anaphylactic reaction, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), acute bronchitis, bronchiolitis, heart failure, or pneumonia.

Breathing difficulties can occur in any age group or population. Breathing difficulties can be caused by a relatively mild condition that is simple to treat, such as wearing restrictive clothing around the abdomen. Breathing difficulties can also occur due to a moderate condition, such as viral pneumonia, or a serious or life-threatening condition, such as a severe asthma attack or heart failure.

Depending on the cause, breathing difficulties can be brief and disappear quickly, such as with hyperventilation. Breathing difficulties can occur in sudden, severe episodes, such as breathing difficulties that occur during sleep apnea or asthma. Breathing difficulties can also be chronic and ongoing over a long period of time, such as with COPD or lung cancer.

Breathing difficulties can be caused by serious or life-threatening conditions, such as asthma, heart failure, or heart attack. Seek immediate medical care (call 911) if you, or someone you are with, have breathing difficulties. Early diagnosis and treatment of underlying causes of breathing difficulties reduces the risk of life-threatening complications, such as respiratory failure and cardiopulmonary arrest.

Medical Reviewers: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS Last Review Date: Aug 23, 2013

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