If you have unexplained breathing problems, especially if they are severe and come on quickly, call triple zero (000) for an ambulance.
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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.
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
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.
What causes breathing problems?
Common causes of feeling short of breath are:
- lung problems, such as asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)
- heart problems, such as a cardiovascular disease and heart failure
- infections in the airways, such as croup, bronchitis, pneumonia, the flu and even a cold
- a panic attack or anxiety
Other causes of suddenly feeling short of breath are:
- allergic reactions
- lung collapse
- a blockage from a clot in one of the blood vessels in the lung (pulmonary embolism)
- rare lung conditions
Some people feel short of breath long term. This can be caused by:
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.
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:
- help to quit smoking, if you smoke
- medicines, including tablets and puffers
- physiotherapy and exercises
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
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