Healthdirect Free Australian health advice you can count on.

Medical problem? Call 1800 022 222. If you need urgent medical help, call triple zero immediately

healthdirect Australia is a free service where you can talk to a nurse or doctor who can help you know what to do.

Call triple zero (000)if you feel short of breath and also have pains in your chest

Call triple zero (000)if you feel short of breath and also have pains in your chest
beginning of content

Breathing problems

5-minute read

If you have unexplained breathing problems, especially if they are severe and come on quickly, call triple zero (000) for an ambulance.

On this page


What are breathing problems?

Breathing problems are when you feel you can’t get enough air, your chest feels very tight, you are breathless or you feel like you’re being suffocated.

You might feel short of breath if you are obese or if you have just done some strenuous exercise. It can also happen in extreme temperatures or if you are at high altitude.

If you have breathing problems for any other reason, it is probably the sign of a medical problem.

Back to top


When should I call an ambulance or go to the emergency department?

You should call triple zero (000) for an ambulance if:

  • you are so short of breath you can’t speak in sentences
  • you also have pains in your chest, arm or jaw
  • you feel faint or sick

Make an appointment to see your doctor or consider going to an emergency department if, as well as being out of breath, you:

  • have swollen feet or ankles
  • feel more short of breath when you lie down
  • have fever, chills and a cough
  • have blue lips or fingertips
  • make noises when you breathe
  • have to put a lot of effort into breathing
  • are getting worse

Back to top


What should I do while waiting for an ambulance?

While you are waiting, try to stay calm. Sit upright and make sure you have someone with you if possible.

If you have asthma, take 4 puffs of your blue or grey reliever puffer. Take 4 more puffs every 4 minutes until help arrives.

If you have been diagnosed with angina, take your medication as directed. Wait 5 minutes and take another dose.

Back to top


What causes breathing problems?

Common causes of feeling short of breath are:

Other causes of suddenly feeling short of breath are:

Some people feel short of breath long term. This can be caused by:

Back to top


What other symptoms might I have?

If your breathing problems are caused by a cold or chest infection, you might also have a cough, fever, sore throat, sneezing, blocked or runny nose and general congestion.

If the problem is to do with your heart, you might also have chest pain, feel light-headed and nauseous.

If the problem is asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), you might also have a lot of mucous, a wheezing sound when you breathe, and your symptoms might get worse with exercise or during the night.

If the problem is a panic attack, you might also have a fast heartbeat, sweating and shaking, nausea, dizziness and a sense of impending doom or danger.

Back to top


How are breathing problems treated?

The type of treatment you need depends on how unwell you feel, how suddenly it has come on and what other conditions you might have.

If you see a doctor, the tests you might have include:

Treatments include:

  • help to quit smoking, if you smoke
  • medicines, including tablets and puffers
  • physiotherapy and exercises

Back to top


Can breathing problems be prevented?

If you have any breathing problems, and you smoke you should quit. Call 13 78 48 or go to the Quitline website.

If you have any medication for breathing problems, such as puffers, use them as directed by your pharmacist or doctor. You can also:

  • take care of yourself and any underlying cause of feeling short of breath
  • stay calm and stand or sit up straight, which helps the air get in and out more easily
  • avoid pollution
  • avoid anything you are allergic to
  • lose weight if you are overweight
  • have a plan for what to do if things get worse

Back to top


Not sure what to do next?

If you are still concerned about your breathing problems, why not use healthdirect’s online Symptom Checker to get advice on when to seek medical attention.

The Symptom Checker guides you to the next appropriate healthcare steps, whether it’s self care, talking to a health professional, going to a hospital or calling triple zero (000).

Learn more here about the development and quality assurance of healthdirect content.

Last reviewed: August 2019

Need more information?

These trusted information partners have more on this topic.

Top results

Breathlessness | Lung Foundation Australia

There are a number of symptoms and side effects which you may experience when living with lung cancer and other lung diseases in addition to various treatments.

Read more on Lung Foundation Australia website

Breathlessness | Lung Cancer | Cancer Council NSW

Many people with lung cancer have difficulty breathing (dyspnoea) & breathlessness. Learn about the surgical ways to reduce its impact on your life.

Read more on Cancer Council Australia website

Wood fires and breathing problems | National Centre for Farmer Health

Wood fire smoke can pollute the air with carbon monoxide an invisible, odourless and tasteless gas that, once ingested, can cause confusion, headaches, fatigue, damage to the heart and brain, and death. Particles in wood fire smoke can irritate the eyes, throat, nose and respiratory system. Read more...

Read more on National Centre for Farmer Health website

Symptoms of Asthma in Children - Asthma Australia

Werecommendall episodes of cough, wheeze, breathlessness and complaints of chest pain are reviewed by your doctor to determine their cause, and the right course of action for your child

Read more on Asthma Australia website

Breathing problems and exercise - Better Health Channel

A little physical activity and some breathing exercises can help people with lung disease.

Read more on Better Health Channel website

Epiglottitis in babies, children & teens | Raising Children Network

Epiglottitis is a serious condition that affects childrens windpipes. If your well child suddenly develops breathing problems, get emergency medical help.

Read more on raisingchildren.net.au website

Peanut - Allergy & Anaphylaxis Australia

Australia has a relatively high prevalence of peanut allergy. Almost 3 in every 100children have a peanut allergy.Around 20 percent of children grow out of their peanut allergy. Those children who have had more severe allergic reactions including breathing problems are much less likely to outgrow their peanut allergy than children who have experienced milder reactions. Sometimes, peanut allergies to not appear until later in life.Peanuts (ground nuts) are a legume and therefore f

Read more on Allergy and Anaphylaxis Australia website

Diagnostic Thoracentesis | myVMC

Diagnostic thoracentesis samples plural effusion in the chest wall. Symtoms include chest pain, shortness of breath.

Read more on myVMC – Virtual Medical Centre website

Bronchial asthma and cardiac asthma - myDr.com.au

Find out the difference between cardiac and bronchial asthma.

Read more on myDr website

Emphysema

Emphysema Category: Lung and Airway Health Topic: Emphysema Send by email View as PDF Send by post Emphysema is a condition where there is an over-inflation of structures in the lungs known as alveoli or air sacs

Read more on Queensland Health website

Healthdirect 24hr 7 days a week hotline

24 hour health advice you can count on

1800 022 222

Government Accredited with over 140 information partners

We are a government-funded service, providing quality, approved health information and advice

Australian Government, health department logo ACT Government logo New South Wales government, health department logo Northen Territory Government logo Government of South Australia, health department logo Tasmanian government logo Government of Western Australia, health department logo