Labored Breathing: What It Means and What to Do About It

Medically Reviewed By Thomas Johnson, PA-C
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Labored breathing can result from many conditions. Some causes, like physical exertion, are easily identifiable and treatable. Other causes, such as pneumonia or congestive heart failure, may be more severe. While “labored breathing” is not a medical term, it generally indicates breathing that requires more effort than usual.

Treatment for labored breathing varies depending on the cause. Some people may only need to avoid triggers, such as allergens. However, others may require more intensive medical treatment.

Read on to learn more about what causes labored breathing and how you and your doctor can address it.

What are the causes of labored breathing?

A woman using a spirometer
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There are many causes of labored breathing. Some are short-lived, while others may be chronic heart and lung conditions. Identifying and managing the cause of your labored breathing will contribute to a positive quality of life.

Some possible causes of labored breathing include:

  • Exertion: Physical exercise causes muscles to require more oxygen as they work harder. Labored breathing due to exertion usually resolves on its own.
  • Panic attack: A panic attack can create feelings of being unable to breathe.
  • Asthma: People with asthma can experience narrowing and inflammation of the air passages. These symptoms increase airway resistance and make breathing more difficult.
  • Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD): COPD involves incurable and progressive lung deterioration, leading to breathing difficulties.
  • Pneumonia: Pneumonia causes fluid or pus to fill the air sacs in the lungs. This condition develops due to bacterial, viral, or fungal infections.
    • COVID-19: One consequence of COVID-19 is severe pneumonia that may require mechanical ventilation and high levels of oxygen support.
  • Congestive heart failure: In congestive heart failure, complex structural changes in the heart lead to an inability to pump effectively. Decreased pumping can stretch the heart walls and allow fluid to back up into the lungs, making breathing difficult.
  • Lung cancer: Lung cancer can cause breathing difficulties and other serious symptoms.

What other symptoms might occur with labored breathing?

Depending on the cause, labored breathing may occur with other symptoms. These symptoms can include:

Labored breathing alongside blue or pale lips, fingernails, or gums may indicate a lack of oxygen circulating through your body. Chest pain, nausea, lightheadedness, or sweating at rest may signal a heart attack.

These conditions are emergencies and require immediate treatment from medical professionals.

How do doctors diagnose labored breathing?

Diagnosing the cause of labored breathing starts with an assessment of your medical history and a physical examination. Your doctor will listen to your heart and lungs and take vital signs. This initial exam will help your doctor determine any necessary testing to pinpoint the cause of your labored breathing.

Your doctor may use a chest X-ray to check for pneumonia and other problems. CT or MRI scans may also be necessary.

Pulmonary function tests can help doctors determine how well your lungs function and may help rule out certain conditions. These tests may include:

  • spirometry, which assesses your lung capacity
  • diffusion capacity, which evaluates the effectiveness of gas exchange in the lungs
  • respiratory muscle pressure, which helps doctors assess how strong your breathing muscles are

More invasive tests may be necessary, including biopsy, bronchoscopy, and thoracentesis. Your doctor will discuss your testing and treatment plan details with you.

What are the treatments for labored breathing?

Treatment for labored breathing depends on your diagnostic test results. You may receive anti-inflammatory medications, oxygen therapy, or continuous positive airway pressure equipment to use at home.

Other treatments will be more specific to the underlying cause of your labored breathing. For example, lung cancer may require chemotherapy, radiation therapy, or surgery. People with asthma may need bronchodilator medication to help widen their airways.

In addition, your doctor may refer you to pulmonary rehabilitation services to improve your lung health. These programs provide interdisciplinary teams that include doctors, nurses, respiratory therapists, and nutritionists.

Self-care

One of the most important things you can do to help your labored breathing is to avoid exposure to pollutants and tobacco smoke. If you smoke, quitting is essential.

If labored breathing occurs when lying flat, try sleeping in a semi-reclined position. You can use a recliner or a wedge pillow to achieve this position.

What is the outlook for people with labored breathing?

The outlook for people with labored breathing depends on the underlying cause. Some conditions that cause labored breathing are self-limiting or relatively minor, while others may be life threatening.

Seeking treatment from a medical professional and following your treatment plan can help improve your outlook.

When should you see a doctor about labored breathing?

If you develop labored breathing without an identifiable cause, contact your doctor. You may be developing a serious respiratory condition.

If labored breathing occurs with other severe symptoms, such as chest pain, pale lips, or pale nail beds, call 911 or seek immediate medical attention.

Other frequently asked questions

Here are a few other questions people commonly ask about labored breathing. Thomas Johnson, PA-C, has medically reviewed the answers.

When is labored breathing an emergency?

If you experience unexpected labored breathing that is severe or persistent, seek immediate medical treatment. It may be a sign of a serious or life threatening condition.

How do you treat labored breathing?

You may be able to treat labored breathing by avoiding irritating factors, such as pollen, pollutants, or heavy exercise. In other cases, a medical professional may need to treat labored breathing with medications, pulmonary rehabilitation, or other more intensive therapies.

Summary

Labored breathing may result from many different conditions, from exercise to COPD to lung cancer

Pulmonary rehabilitation and breathing techniques can strengthen your lungs and help you feel more in control of your breathing. Depending on the underlying cause, additional medical treatment may be necessary.

Contact your doctor if you experience persistent or severe labored breathing. They can help you determine the cause and the appropriate treatment plan.

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Medical Reviewer: Thomas Johnson, PA-C
Last Review Date: 2022 Sep 1
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THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.
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