Difficulty breathing – causes, treatment

Difficulty breathing

There are many causes of acute and chronic respiratory problems . The treatment of this symptom always belongs in the hands of a doctor. Difficulty breathing can be sudden or permanent.

What are breathing difficulties?

Difficulty breathing is a term used to describe a wide range of disorders in the oral cavity, larynx and trachea. These disorders can have physical or psychological causes.

Symptoms of obstructed breathing can occur in both children and adults. When inhaling, the body is constantly supplied with the vital oxygen that the human blood is enriched with through the lungs.

On the other hand, when you exhale, your body gets rid of waste products, primarily carbon dioxide. Both processes are vital for the functioning of all organs and cells. If the body is not sufficiently supplied with oxygen, there is a risk of health deficits.


The reasons for breathing difficulties are very diverse. Even a cold or the flu can affect your breathing. Swelling of the nasal mucous membranes or inflammation in the pharynx and tonsils make it difficult to breathe freely. If these bacterial or viral infections are left untreated, the infection can spread to the lungs.

The consequences are serious illnesses such as bronchitis or even pneumonia . Another common reason for breathing difficulties is chronic bronchial asthma , which is classified as an allergic disease. Children can contract the dangerous croup cough, which can result in acute shortness of breath .

Certain diseases of the heart can also cause breathing difficulties because they affect the lungs. Heart failure leads to a chronic lack of oxygen, which makes the patient gasp for air.

Another cause of shortness of breath is swallowing foreign objects or chemical burns in the airways. Mental causes can result in breathing difficulties such as hyperventilation .

diseases with this symptom

Diagnosis & History

Colds are usually easy for the doctor to diagnose. The patient has a red throat, swollen tonsils, sneezes and a runny nose. He has difficulty breathing and often has fever and headaches . The doctor will illuminate your throat and sinuses and look inside your ears. Then he will listen to your lungs with a stethoscope.

Allergic asthma is a chronic disease and the doctor will order an allergy test and a pulmonary function test. The pediatrician recognizes croup from the barking cough and shortness of breath.

The doctor recognizes the breathing difficulties of the heart patient through various examinations such as the electrocardiogram . But sometimes he can make the diagnosis on physical examination, since all patients with heart failure have a bluish complexion.

If, for example, children have swallowed foreign bodies or chemical substances have burned their airways, the diagnosis must be made very quickly and on suspicion.


As a complication of untreated breathing difficulties, there is a threat of restriction of lung activity .

The task of the lungs is to take in oxygen-poor blood and release oxygen-rich blood into the systemic circulation. If the human breathing is disturbed, the lungs cannot work effectively. As a result, not enough oxygen gets into the cells of the organs. If left untreated, this undersupply leads to sleep disorders , daytime tiredness, headaches and damage to the internal organs.

The body has to expend more energy than it should to breathe, which can lead to weight loss . Physical and mental resilience is limited. The cardiovascular system is put under excessive strain. Due to the extra work of the heart, there is a risk of overloading this organ.

The smallest blood vessels – the capillaries – do not get enough oxygen and atrophy. The consequences are sensory disturbances , for example in fingers and toes, as well as poorly healing wounds. If the smallest blood vessels in the brain die , there is a risk of a stroke . Chronic lung damage can occur as a result of dyspnea, which further aggravates the shortness of breath.

Untreated breathing difficulties can trigger overinflation of the lungs. Dead spaces – irreparable damage – form in the organ, and the lung tissue dies. This leads to an increasing reduction in lung volume. In the worst case, untreated dyspnea leads to cardiovascular collapse and death by asphyxiation.

When should you go to the doctor?

Breathing difficulties that persist for several days or worsen within a relatively short period of time should always be clarified by a doctor. This applies in particular if there are previous illnesses of the lungs or the cardiovascular system or if the complaints are accompanied by accompanying symptoms.

Fever and headaches indicate a serious underlying disease or an allergy – a doctor’s visit is urgently needed here and should be done quickly due to the rapid progression of many lung diseases. If dizziness and feelings of lightheadedness are added, there may already be a lack of oxygen. In this case, an ambulance should be called as soon as possible. In the event of unconsciousness, sudden pain in the lungs or chest area and feelings of suffocation, you must also act quickly.

There may be a serious condition, such as untreated pneumonia, which, if left untreated, could result in death. If breathing problems are treated inadequately or too late, the lungs can become overinflated. Cavities form within the lung tissue and lead to tissue death and, in extreme cases, to organ failure.

Problems with breathing should therefore generally be clarified by a doctor. Especially when the cause is not known, the symptoms lead to a rapid deterioration in health or the body is already weakened by a previous illness.

Treatment & Therapy

Difficulty breathing is a symptom and the doctor needs to find out the cause before treating it. Home remedies such as teas, mint extracts or homeopathic medicines often help with a simple cold . Doctors often treat more severe flu with antibiotics to prevent the bacteria from spreading to the bronchi or lungs.

In the case of acute bronchitis or pneumonia, treatment is often carried out in the hospital, as these could become life-threatening. The most feared complication of pneumonia is pleural effusion . This causes parts of the lungs to fill with infectious fluid. The patient is treated with antibiotics, oxygen and IV fluids . In severe cases, the lung must be punctured or operated on.

Heart failure requires complex drug treatment or surgery. Many of the patients are waiting for a donor heart for a transplant.

If foreign objects are swallowed, the parents must provide first aid to prevent the child from suffocating. Poisoning and chemical burns belong in the hands of a doctor immediately.

Outlook & Forecast

Difficulty breathing (dyspnoea) is often a sign of serious illness. They sometimes cause panic and pain . Therefore, a diagnosis as early as possible is necessary. It should go hand in hand with emergency management. A precise diagnosis of dyspnea depends on the type and severity of the causative disease.

Massive dyspnea exposes the organism to a pronounced lack of oxygen. This deficiency can generate organ damage and other serious consequences.

Minor breathing problems are often associated with inflammation. They must be clarified before threatening conditions arise. After extensive elimination of the corresponding underlying disease, the breathing problems disappear. If chronic underlying diseases occur, a continuous course of breathing difficulties is to be expected.

If the breathing problems start during sleep , difficult breathing or respiratory arrest can be the trigger. Breathing pauses can become life-threatening over a long period of time, so medical treatment is essential. If breathing is difficult, both the oxygen supply and the individual sleeping position should be checked. In this way, breathing problems can ideally be eliminated.

Because breathing difficulties lead to an undersupply of the organism with the vital oxygen , heart and lungs can be damaged if left untreated. As a result, muscle problems and psychogenic illnesses such as panic attacks and/or anxiety can occur.


Vitamins and exposure to fresh air reduce the risk of catching a cold and you can get vaccinated against flu. Smoking causes lasting damage to the respiratory tract. Small children are never left unattended and cleaning supplies and other chemicals are always kept under lock and key.

You can do that yourself

Slight breathing difficulties can be treated with various home remedies and self-measures. First, drinking helps to relieve the initial shortness of breath and to clear the throat of mucus and possible foreign bodies. Tea made from mint leaves, lemon balm , cinquefoil or lavender is particularly effective and clears the airways again, at least for a short time. Chamomile steam baths, which moisten the mucous membranes and relax the bronchi, are similarly effective.

Alternatively, those affected can use nasal douches or cough suppressants, among other things , to relieve the breathing difficulties. A moist, warm compress relaxes the respiratory muscles and, like steam baths, is particularly effective for asthma and similar respiratory diseases. Furthermore, a healthy lifestyle can help to strengthen the respiratory tract and the immune system and prevent shortness of breath in the future. If you have severe breathing difficulties, you should relax your breathing with slow, controlled breathing.

Those affected with shortness of breath should position themselves in the goalkeeper or coach position in order to guarantee an optimal supply of oxygen to the respiratory tract. If this does not relieve the symptoms and there is severe shortness of breath, an emergency doctor should be called. Even with regular breathing problems, which can only be solved to a limited extent with home remedies and self-measures, a visit to the doctor is recommended.

Lisa Newlon
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Hello! I am Lisa Newlon, and I am a medical writer and researcher with over 10 years of experience in the healthcare industry. I have a Master’s degree in Medicine, and my deep understanding of medical terminology, practices, and procedures has made me a trusted source of information in the medical world.