First aid - Look, listen and feel for breathing

Breathing Symptoms


Healthgrades Editorial Staff

What are the signs of breathing problems?

Breathing symptoms are common symptoms of lung or heart conditions, emotions, or injury. The medical terms for breathing symptoms are dyspnea (difficulty breathing), tachypnea (rapid breathing), hypopnea (shallow breathing), hyperpnea (deep breathing), and apnea (absence of breathing). Breathing problems may occur in conditions that primarily affect the lungs or they may be present in association with more generalized conditions, such as dehydration or infections.

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD, includes emphysema and chronic bronchitis) and asthma are common causes of breathing symptoms. Other common causes include infections, such as pneumonia or acute bronchitis. Inflammation can cause breathing symptoms, as seen in pleuritis or chronic bronchitis. Depending on the cause, breathing symptoms may originate from one or both lungs and may be accompanied by rapid heart rate (tachycardia), low blood pressure (hypotension), or other cardiovascular signs and symptoms.

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Heart conditions can lead to breathing symptoms, especially in severe cases, such as congestive cardiac failure, in which the lungs fill with fluid because of ineffective pumping by the heart. Anxiety and panic attacks are common causes of breathing symptoms and include rapid breathing that may result in hyperventilation and fainting. Airway obstruction causes breathing symptoms that may include rapid shallow breathing. Lung injury from chest trauma can also lead to breathing symptoms.

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Breathing symptoms can be a sign of a serious or life-threatening condition. Seek immediate medical care (call 911) for serious symptoms, such as sweating and severe difficulty breathing, severe sharp chest pain that may be combined with pale or blue lips, fast heart rate, high fever (higher than 101 degrees Fahrenheit), fainting, or change in level of consciousness or lethargy.

Seek prompt medical care if you are being treated for breathing symptoms but mild symptoms recur or are persistent.

Medical Reviewers: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS Last Review Date: Oct 15, 2016

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Medical References

  1. Shortness of breath.
  2. Breathing difficulty. Medline Plus, a service of the National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health.
  3. Collins RD. Differential Diagnosis in Primary Care, 5th ed. Philadelphia: Lippincott, Williams & Williams, 2012.
  4. Bope ET, Kellerman RD (Eds.) Conn’s Current Therapy. Philadelphia: Saunders, 2013.
  5. Domino FJ (Ed.) Five Minute Clinical Consult. Philadelphia: Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, 2013.

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