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How to Help Someone Who Is Having Trouble Breathing

Updated on February 26, 2018
Deborah-Diane profile image

Deborah has been trained in First Aid as a consequence of working with teens as an educator, Girl Scout leader, and school volunteer.

Anyone Can Suddenly Stop Breathing

If someone has difficulty breathing there can be many causes, including a heart attack, asthma, medication or choking.
If someone has difficulty breathing there can be many causes, including a heart attack, asthma, medication or choking. | Source

Why Someone May be Having Difficulty Breathing

Many problems can cause an adult or child to suddenly have trouble breathing!

There are, in fact, several different health problems which can cause a person to suddenly begin to need help breathing. Breathing emergencies may be caused by allergic reactions, asthma, electric shock, heart attacks, and even some medications. Since it is essential to get help right away if someone is having difficulty breathing, it is important for everyone to learn how to quickly recognize asthma symptoms, as well as symptoms of other breathing emergencies. Although some are obvious, others can be very subtle.

If you have a family member who sometimes has difficulty breathing, you may even want to keep a rescue mask and pocket resuscitator on hand. They are very inexpensive and could make it easier for you to keep your loved one alive until emergency personnel arrive.

A Rescue Mask and Resuscitator Can Help You Save a Life

MCR Medical CPR Rescue Mask, Adult/Child Pocket Resuscitator, Hard Case with Wrist Strap
MCR Medical CPR Rescue Mask, Adult/Child Pocket Resuscitator, Hard Case with Wrist Strap

If you have a family member who may sometimes have trouble breathing, for example because of asthma, you may want to keep one of these devices on hand. In my First Aid Training as a Girl Scout Leader and school employee, we practiced using these types of devices. You may also want to take a class in how to use a resuscitator so you are not struggling with the device in an emergency. Once I learned how to use one, I realized what a life-saving gift they could be for someone who is having difficulty breathing.


Everyone Should Learn Proper CPR Procedure

In addition to learning how to use a resuscitator, everyone should also take a CPR class and, if possible, repeat it every few years. With enough practice, you will know exactly what to do in an emergency.

The important thing to remember is to NOT panic if someone faints or stops breathing. Instead, you should calmly be prepared to use the correct CPR procedure and call 9-1-1 immediately!

Since most high schools in the United States now require all their graduates to take a Red Cross approved CPR class, chances are good that you have been trained in the proper CPR procedure sometime in the past. If so, in an emergency you should begin CPR right away (or find someone else who has been trained). In addition, you or someone else should call 9-1-1 or your local emergency number. The emergency personnel will give you further instructions, and can even walk you through the steps of CPR if it has been a few years since you took your last class.

If you are alone, call 9-1-1 and then start CPR. You want to make sure emergency personnel are on their way as quickly as possible. Continue to administer CPR until they show up.

Learn the Heimlich Maneuver

A common reason for someone to stop breathing is because they are choking on a piece of food. If you see someone choking, their breathing emergency will be different than if they fainted and stop breathing. Instead of immediately starting CPR, you may need to do the Heimlich maneuver. The most common symptom of a choking emergency is if the person is gasping for breath, or clutching their throat. If you see this happen, ask the person if they are choking. If they nod their head, attempt the Heimlich maneuver. If that does not solve the problem quickly, call emergency medical personnel. While you are waiting, keep trying the Heimlich maneuver. In addition, remember that some medicines can cause breathing problems. Ask if they have taken any medications.

Subtle Symptoms of Breathing Difficulties

Someone who is having a breathing emergency may not faint, stop breathing or begin choking. There are other symptoms of breathing problems which may be more subtle. For example, the victim may begin breathing unusually slowly or rapidly, or their breath can be especially deep or shallow. It is also a concern if someone begins wheezing, gurgling or making other sounds. These may be asthma symptoms. Ask if they have an asthma inhaler, or if there is other medication they need. Most people who use asthma inhalers keep them handy. Again, call 9-1-1 for assistance if the problem continues for more than a few minutes.

Another possible cause of breathing difficulties is that they could be having a heart attack! There are additional clues which could indicate a heart problem. Look at their skin. Are they sweating heavily? Is their skin moist or suddenly pale or flushed? Are their lips beginning to look bluish? All of these are cause for alarm! Be concerned, as well, if the victim is dizzy, light-headed, or experiences chest pain. These symptoms could signify a heart-attack, heat stroke, cardiac asthma or other serious problem. Have the patient sit down and try to relax while you call 9-1-1.

If you want to be prepared for an emergency, take First Aid Courses whenever you have the opportunity. You could save a life.

Source: American Red Cross First Aid courses and literature.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and does not substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed health professional. Drugs, supplements, and natural remedies may have dangerous side effects. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.

© 2011 Deborah-Diane


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    • Deborah-Diane profile imageAUTHOR


      4 years ago from Orange County, California

      Everyone should take at least one CPR class in their lifetime. In some careers, people are expected to take a class once every couple of years. The more people who know CPR, the more lives that can be saved.

    • sgbrown profile image

      Sheila Brown 

      5 years ago from Southern Oklahoma

      I should really take a CPR class. This is a really great, informative hub! :)

    • Blond Logic profile image

      Mary Wickison 

      5 years ago from Brazil

      I found myself choking the last time I visited my family. I had taken a paracetamol but was laughing at something someone said and the tablet went the wrong way.

      It was so frightening. As I was gasping for air, my sister thought I was joking until she saw the look on my face. I tried to tell her to slap me on the back which she finally did. This solved the problem, thank goodness.

      I didn't realize they taught this in high school, it is a very useful life skill to learn.

    • Au fait profile image

      C E Clark 

      5 years ago from North Texas

      Thought I had read all of your articles! How did I miss this one? This is very important information and I'm going to share it and also, voted up!

    • Deborah-Diane profile imageAUTHOR


      5 years ago from Orange County, California

      You are right that we all need to brush up on our first aid training. If we are with someone who is choking, or having any other emergency, we want to be able to react appropriately and quickly.

    • vespawoolf profile image


      5 years ago from Peru, South America

      This is a good reminder to brush up on our first aid techniques. My husband always reminds me to use the universal choking gesture if he ever needs to perform the Heimlich maneuver. Thank you for sharing.

    • Deborah-Diane profile imageAUTHOR


      6 years ago from Orange County, California

      Thank you for helping to spread the word about this important topic. It could save a life!

    • moonlake profile image


      6 years ago from America

      Adding this article to my health board on Pinterest.

    • Deborah-Diane profile imageAUTHOR


      6 years ago from Orange County, California

      Moonlake, it must be terrifying to wake up from a deep sleep and realize that you cannot breath! I hope it never happens to you again. I am glad that you found this article to be helpful, and I hope that it helps others in the future, too!

    • moonlake profile image


      6 years ago from America

      I woke once in the middle of the night from a sound sleep unable to breath. I could not get any air. My husband was jumping around asking me what he should do? I couldn't answer, suddenly I was able to breath. It was awful the doctor figured it was some kind of allergy attack.

      Good information in your hub voted up.

    • Deborah-Diane profile imageAUTHOR


      6 years ago from Orange County, California

      Thank you for your comments. It is frightening when people are having trouble breathing, so it is always good to know what to do to help them.

    • profile image


      6 years ago

      thank you for the imformation............/~```

    • billips profile image


      7 years ago from Central Texas

      Excellent article - good information to keep in mind if we see someone in distress - there is noting more distressing than struggling for air.

    • Kayleesnider profile image


      7 years ago from USA

      You mentioned good point here.Good work.

    • ahase profile image


      7 years ago from Bangladesh

      Very Useful Hub....Thanks for sharing....I had also asthma before I left smoking habit.

    • profile image

      Giselle Maine 

      7 years ago

      Thanks for this great guide. It is good to be prepared. I'm grateful that you have put this information together in one helpful guide. I hadn't thought about medications that could affect breathing, so I definitely learnt from this hub.

    • denise.w.anderson profile image

      Denise W Anderson 

      7 years ago from Bismarck, North Dakota

      Its one of those things you think will never happen to you or someone you love, but one day it will. Thanks for helping us be ready.

    • profile image


      7 years ago

      My husband has asthma. We've been through some of the above breathing problems and even gone off to the ER. He's been hospitalized or in the ER for O2 several times. It's no fun, believe me! These last couple years have been better, but once he was in ICU. Thanks for the informative hub.

    • damek profile image


      7 years ago from USA

      Hope that this hub will help somebody in the future. Good job!


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