Everything to Know About Labored Breathing

Everything to Know About Labored Breathing

Labored breathing is an umbrella term for experiencing breathing difficulties. It can apply to numerous conditions characterized by physically impaired breathing. Yet, it is not a medical term but only a term people use to describe ‘hard to breathe’. Still, if you are having difficulty breathing that’s not a result of strenuous exercise, seek medical help right away.

Now, if you want to learn everything about labored breathing, read on below!

Labored Breathing Symptoms

When breathing is restricted, impaired, or obstructed, it might point to several symptoms which include:

  • Dyspnea – shortness of breath
  • Apnea – abnormal breathing interruptions
  • Hyperpnea – fast, deeper breathing
  • Bradypnea – slow breathing
  • Tachypnea – fast, shallow breathing
  • Stridor – a harsh, grating breathing sound
  • Wheezing – a whistling sound when exhaling

Other labored breathing signs might include grunting, nasal flaring, intercostal retractions, and cyanosis. And, in extreme cases, labored breathing can result in asphyxia, or even suffocation if it is caused by airflow blockage.

Labored Breathing Causes

There are plenty of reasons that can lead to labored breathing, from allergic reactions like anaphylaxis to anxiety disorders like PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder). In general, the causes are classified as acute (developing quickly and often severe) or chronic (persistent and progressive).

Common acute causes of labored breathing include:

  • Asbestosis
  • Anaphylaxis
  • Chest or neck injury
  • Choking
  • Asphyxiation
  • Panic attacks
  • Pleural effusion
  • Pericardial effusion
  • Pneumonia
  • Pulmonary thrombosis
  • Pneumothorax
  • Whooping cough

Common chronic causes of labored breathing include:

  • Asthma
  • Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)
  • Asthma
  • Coronary artery disease
  • Congestive heart failure
  • Lung cancer
  • Pulmonary sarcoidosis
  • Pulmonary edema
  • Tuberculosis
  • Cystic fibrosis

Labored Breathing Diagnosis

When a patient experiences labored breathing, doctors typically order tests and procedures that will help them identify the underlying cause of it. Primary evaluation tools for labored breathing include:

  • Physical exam – A doctor will listen to your lungs, monitor your pulse, count breaths per minute, and look for any visible symptoms like intercostal retractions, nasal flaring, or cyanosis.
  • Blood tests – These might include an arterial blood gas (ABG) test to measure blood oxygen level and a complete blood count (CBC) test to check for anemia
  • Imaging studies – A chest X-ray, CT scan, or MRI scan can identify abnormal changes in the lungs like pneumonia or pleural effusion
  • Pulmonary function tests – These might include spirometry which measures both the speed and force by which air is expelled from the lungs.
  • Electrocardiogram – An ECG is a non-invasive test that measures the electrical activity of the heart and helps in determining its functioning.

All of the above-listed tests can point your doctor in the direction of the possible cause of your labored breathing. Then, you might need additional tests and/or procedures to determine the right cause and get treatment based on the diagnosis.

Labored Breathing Treatments

Depending on the underlying cause of labored breathing, the treatment can vary. But, what if the underlying cause is still unknown? No worries, you will still get treatment, especially if your symptoms are severe.

Primary labored breathing treatments include:

  • Short-acting beta-agonists
  • Epinephrine injection
  • Corticosteroids
  • Oxygen therapy
  • Anxiolytics

Final Thoughts

Labored breathing isn’t considered normal, especially if it isn’t caused by strenuous exercise. Indeed, it often points to a health issue that is prolonged and abnormal. It may be due to a physical condition like COPD, or a psychological one like panic attacks. Unfortunately, it may be severe sometimes, and seek emergency medical help.

That said, if you have been experiencing any breathing difficulties, ensure you talk to your doctor as soon as possible to determine the underlying cause and get proper treatment.