Breathing Problems

Some 44 million Americans suffer from allergies and asthma and have trouble breathing during an attack. Also, there are millions of people who have breathing problems because of cigarette smoke and air pollution.

Breathing problems also affect people who are very allergic to some types of shellfish, nuts, medications and insect bites. These people can suffer an allergic reaction called anaphylactic shock. This reaction begins within minutes of exposure to the substance causing the allergy. During this type of allergic reaction, the airways narrow, making it difficult to breathe. Soon, the heartbeat races and blood pressure drops. Anaphylactic shock can be fatal if a person is not treated within 15 minutes.

Breathing problems from some things may require emergency care.

In children they include:

  • Wheezing (see page 263)
  • Croup, a virus with a “barking cough” common in young children (see page 255)
  • Diphtheria, which is a very contagious throat infection
  • Heart defects children are born with

In children and adults they include:

  • Severe allergic reactions
  • A face, head, nose or lung injury
  • Carbon monoxide poisoning
  • Harsh chemical burns in the air passages
  • Epiglottitis, which is inflammation of the flap of tissue at the back of the throat that can close off the windpipe
  • Choking (see page 298)
  • Drug overdose
  • Poisoning (see page 322)
  • Asthma (see page 76)
  • Bronchitis (see page 81)
  • Pneumonia (see page 369)

In adults they include:

  • Emphysema (see page 348)
  • Congestive heart failure
  • Heart attack (see “Chest Pains” on page 150 and “Coronary Heart Disease” on page 343)
  • Blood clot in a lung
  • Collapse of a lung


  • Avoid allergic substances or agents that induce asthma, if you have it.
  • Do not walk, run or jog on roads with heavy automobile traffic.
  • If you have a gas furnace, install a carbon monoxide detector.
  • Never leave your car running in a closed garage.
  • Make sure immunizations against childhood diseases, especially diphtheria, are up-to-date. This is part of the Diphtheria, Tetanus, Pertussis (DTP) vaccination. (See “Immunization Schedule” on page 18.)
  • If you smoke, quit.
  • Keep small objects a child could choke on out of reach and do not give gum, (especially bubble gum), nuts, hard candy, or popcorn to children under 5 years old.
  • Lock up all medications and poisonous substances so small children can’t get to them.

Questions to Ask

Has breathing stopped and is there no pulse?

Yes: Seek Emergency Care


Has breathing stopped, but there is a pulse?
Yes: Seek Emergency Care

Has breathing stopped due to choking on an inhaled object?
Yes: Seek Emergency Care

Are there signs of anaphylactic shock?

  • Difficulty breathing
  • Swollen tongue, eyes, or face
  • Unconsciousness
  • Difficulty in swallowing
  • Dizziness, weakness
  • Pounding heart
  • Itching, hives

Yes: Seek Emergency Care

Are any of these problems present with difficulty in breathing?

  • Signs of a heart attack such as chest pain, pressure, or tightness; pain that spreads to the arm, neck or jaw; irregular pulse.
  • Serious injury to the face, head, or chest
  • Signs of a stroke such as blurred or double vision, slurred speech, one-side body weakness or paralysis
  • Signs of drug overdose such as drunkenlike behavior, slurred speech, slow or rapid pulse, heavy sweating, enlarged or very small eye pupils

Yes: Seek Emergency Care

Is it so hard to breathe that the person can’t talk (say 4 or 5 words between breaths) and/or is there wheezing that doesn’t go away?
Yes: Seek Emergency Care

Is blood being coughed up?
Yes: Seek Emergency Care

Does the difficulty in breathing occur with a cough in a baby and does it make the baby unable to eat or take a bottle?
Yes: Seek Emergency Care

Are any of these signs present?

  • Breathlessness at night or at rest
  • Pink or frothy phlegm being coughed up and/or
  • A high fever along with rapid and labored breathing

Yes: Seek Emergency Care

Is a green, yellow, or gray mucus being coughed up?
Yes: See Doctor

Provide Self-Care

Self-Care Tips

For People Affected by Air Pollution or Pollen:

  • Wear a face mask that covers the nose and mouth, when outdoors. Most hardware stores carry inexpensive ones.
  • Don’t smoke. Avoid secondhand smoke. This applies to anyone with breathing difficulties.
  • Install an electronic air filtering system or use an air purifier in your home, especially in the bedroom. Tests show that air filters help clear the air of allergy-causing agents.

For People Allergic to Molds:
    Breathing problems can be avoided or lessened if you:

  • Do not rake leaves that have been on the ground for awhile. Molds and mildew grow on leaves after they’ve been on the ground for a few days.
  • Keep your basement dry, well ventilated, and well lit. Use dehumidifiers and exhaust fans to reduce moisture in the air.
  • Get rid of house plants.
  • Avoid barns, chicken coops, damp basements, and attics.

If you or anyone in your family has serious allergies, it is a good idea to wear a medical identification tag such as ones available at drug stores or ones custom made by MedicAlert Foundation. For more information see “Places to Get Information & Help” under “Medical Identification” on page 376.

See also: “Asthma” on page 76, “Bronchitis” on page 81, “Common Cold” on page 83, “Coughs” on page 85, and “Flu” on page 87.

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Written by American Institute for Preventive Medicine

Explore Wellness in 2021