What Does Labored Breathing Mean?
you’re running a marathon, breathing isn’t usually something you think about.
When you experience labored breathing, you can’t breathe easily and may even struggle
to breathe. Labored breathing can be alarming and cause you to feel tired or
worn out. It can sometimes represent a medical emergency.
are numerous causes of labored breathing. Not all of them are specifically
related to the lungs. Seeking medical treatment to identify a cause can help
you get back to breathing normally.
What Are the Symptoms of Labored Breathing?
Other names for labored breathing include:
- difficulty breathing
- trouble breathing
- uncomfortable breathing
- working hard to breathe
The severity of labored breathing depends on its
circumstances. For example, when exercising, you may temporarily experience
labored breathing as a part of exerting yourself. Labored breathing lasts
longer and you can’t expect it to subside within a certain amount of time.
What Causes Labored Breathing?
Labored breathing can have many causes. Some are
related to chronic conditions, including:
- amyotrophic lateral
- chronic bronchitis
- chronic obstructive
pulmonary disease (COPD)
- coronary artery disease
- congestive heart failure
- Guillain-Barré syndrome
- lung cancer
- myasthenia gravis
- pulmonary edema
- pulmonary fibrosis
- pulmonary hypertension
- stable angina
- ventricular dysfunction
Just because labored breathing is a symptom of a
chronic condition doesn’t mean it’s OK or normal.
Other acute or sudden-onset conditions that may
result in labored breathing include:
- carbon monoxide poisoning
- fluid buildup around the
lungs due to pleural effusion or pericardial effusion
- heart attack
- upper airway obstruction
(choking on something)
Many of these causes of labored breathing represent
Labored breathing can also be the result of anxiety.
Feeling panicked or scared can cause you to hyperventilate or breathe very quickly.
You may have trouble catching your breath, causing your breathing to be labored.
When Do I Seek Medical Help for Labored Breathing?
Breathing is vital to your body’s functioning, particularly
your brain. For this reason, labored breathing is often considered a medical
Seek immediate medical attention if you experience a labored
breathing episode unrelated to physical activity that doesn’t go away after a
few minutes. Even if you can attribute the labored breathing to an underlying
disease, seeking immediate attention before your condition worsens can protect
your health and your airway.
Other symptoms associated with labored breathing that need
medical attention include:
- difficulty lying flat
- feeling disoriented or confused
- wheezing when breathing
Children can also experience labored breathing. Symptoms that
warrant immediate medical attention include:
- breathing very quickly, especially faster than normal
- excessive drooling or difficulty swallowing
- skin that looks blue or gray around the nose, mouth,
- noisy, high-pitched breathing sounds
- suddenly anxiety or fatigue
How Is Labored Breathing Diagnosed?
A doctor will first try to relate the labored
breathing to a known cause. For example, if you have lung cancer or COPD, your labored
breathing may likely be due to worsening of that condition.
Additional diagnostic tests that may help diagnose
labored breathing include:
- physical exam: Your doctor will
listen to your lungs with a stethoscope, count how fast you’re breathing, and
look at your overall appearance.
- functional assessment: This may include
watching you walk to see how short of breath you become.
- chest X-ray: Taking an X-ray visualizes
the lungs so your doctor can look for any potential obstructions, fluid
buildup, or pneumonia symptoms.
- computed tomography
(CT) scan: This provides a detailed view of the lungs and other organs in your
body to identify abnormalities.
- blood testing: Doing a blood test
for a complete blood count (CBC) test can determine how many oxygen-carrying
red blood cells you have. An arterial blood gas (ABG) is another blood test
that can indicate how much oxygen is present in the blood.
How Is Labored Breathing Treated?
Treatment for labored breathing depends upon the
underlying cause and the severity of the symptoms. Examples include:
- administering breathing treatments or medications to
open up closed airways
- applying oxygen therapy to increase the amount of
available oxygen in the air
- medications for people experiencing labored
breathing due to anxiety
- using a ventilator to help you breath
If an underlying infection, such as pneumonia, is the cause, you’ll
also be given antibiotics. In rare instances, surgery may be required to remove
a tumor or other obstruction that may be affecting your ability to breathe.