First Aid for Breathing Problems

Some 44 million Americans suffer from allergies and asthma and have trouble breathing during an attack. What’s more, there are millions of people who have breathing difficulties because of grey, gritty smog and air polluted by poorly tuned engines and cigarette smoke.

Breathing difficulties 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 kill if a person is not treated
within 15 minutes.

Breathing difficulties from some things may require emergency care.

In children they include:

  • Wheezing
  • Croup, a virus with a “barking cough” common in young children
  • Epiglottitis, which is inflammation of the flap of tissue at the back of the throat that closes off
    the windpipe
  • 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
  • Choking
  • Drug overdose
  • Poisoning
  • Asthma
  • Bronchitis and pneumonia

In adults they include:

  • Emphysema
  • Congestive heart failure
  • Heart attack
  • Blood clot in 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, have it checked once a year for carbon monoxide leaks.
  • 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.
  • 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 five years old.
  • Lock up all medications and poisonous substances so small children can’t get to them.

Self-Care Procedures

For people affected by air pollution or pollen:

  • Put on a face mask that covers the nose and mouth
  • Most hardware stores carry inexpensive
  • Don’t smoke. Avoid secondhand smoke
    (Note: This applies to anyone with breathing difficulties.)
  • Install an air filtering system in your home or an air purifier, 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 sat 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 lighted. Use dehumidifiers and exhaust fans
    to reduce moisture in the air.
  • Get rid of house plants.

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 Medic Alert Foundation.

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Written by American Institute for Preventive Medicine

Explore Wellness in 2021