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How many people each year suffer some type of preventable harm that contributes to their death after a hospital visit?
from 46,000 to 78,000
from 78,000 to 132,000
from 132,000 to 210,000
from 210,000 to 440,000

 Emergency & First Aid: First Aid for Breathing Problems 
American Institute for Preventive Medicine ©
Some 44 million Americans suffer from allergies and asthma and have trouble breathing during an attack. What's more, there are millions of people who have breathing difficulties because of grey, gritty smog and air polluted by poorly tuned engines and cigarette smoke.

Breathing difficulties also affect people who are very allergic to some types of shellfish, nuts, medications and insect bites. These people can suffer an allergic reaction called anaphylactic shock. This reaction begins within minutes of exposure to the substance causing the allergy. During this type of allergic reaction, the airways narrow, making it difficult to breathe. Soon, the heartbeat races and blood pressure drops. Anaphylactic shock can kill if a person is not treated within 15 minutes.

Breathing difficulties from some things may require emergency care.

In children they include:

  • Wheezing
  • Croup, a virus with a "barking cough" common in young children
  • Epiglottitis, which is inflammation of the flap of tissue at the back of the throat that closes off the windpipe
  • Diphtheria, which is a very contagious throat infection
  • Heart defects children are born with

In children and adults they include:

  • Severe allergic reactions
  • A face, head, nose or lung injury
  • Carbon monoxide poisoning
  • Harsh chemical burns in the air passages
  • Choking
  • Drug overdose
  • Poisoning
  • Asthma
  • Bronchitis and pneumonia

In adults they include:

  • Emphysema
  • Congestive heart failure
  • Heart attack
  • Blood clot in a lung


  • Avoid allergic substances or agents that induce asthma, if you have it.
  • Do not walk, run or jog on roads with heavy automobile traffic.
  • If you have a gas furnace, have it checked once a year for carbon monoxide leaks.
  • Never leave your car running in a closed garage.
  • Make sure immunizations against childhood diseases, especially diphtheria, are up-to-date. This is part of the Diphtheria, Tetanus, Pertussis (DTP) vaccination.
  • If you smoke, quit.
  • Keep small objects a child could choke on out of reach and do not give gum, especially bubble gum, nuts, hard candy or popcorn to children under five years old.
  • Lock up all medications and poisonous substances so small children can't get to them.

Questions to Ask

Has breathing stopped and is there no pulse?Yes: Seek CareGive First Aid

Perform CPR and Get Emergency Care(See CPR.)

Has breathing stopped, but there is a pulse?Yes: Seek CareGive First Aid

Perform "Rescue Breathing" and Get Emergency Care

  • (See "Airway and Breathing" under CPR.)
  • Has breathing stopped due to choking on a swallowed object?
    Yes: Seek CareGive First Aid

    Perform Heimlich Maneuver and Get Emergency Care

  • (See "First Aid for Choking".)
  • Are there signs of anaphylactic shock?
    • Difficult breathing
    • Swollen tongue, eyes or face
    • Unconsciousness
    • Difficulty in swallowing
    • Dizziness, weakness
    • Pounding heart
    • Itching, hives
    Yes: Seek CareGive First Aid

    Inject the substance from the emergency kit some very allergic people carry with them, ifmavailable and Get Emergency Care. Follow all the instructions in the kit.

    Are any of these problems present with difficulty in breathing?
    • Signs of a heart attack such as chest pain, pressure or tightness, pain that spreads to the arm, neck or jaw, irregular pulse
    • Serious injury to the face, head or chest
    • Signs of a stroke such as blurred or double vision, slurred speech, one side body weakness or paralysis.
    • Signs of drug overdose such as drunklike behavior, slurred speech, slow or rapid pulse, heavy sweating, enlarged or very small eye pupils
    Yes: Seek CareGive First Aid

    Get Emergency Care and Give first aid for problem at hand. (For example, see "Chest Pain" for first aid for heart attack, see "Head Injury" , see "Drug Overdose".)

    Is it so hard to breathe that you or someone else can't talk (say 4 or 5 words between breaths) and/or is there wheezing that doesn't go away?Yes: Seek Care
    Is bloody sputum being coughed up?Yes: Seek Care
    Does the difficulty in breathing occur with a cough in a baby and does it make the baby unable to eat or take a bottle?Yes: Seek Care
    Is there?
    • Breathlessness at night or at rest
    • Pink or frothy phlegm being coughed up and/or
    • A high fever along with the rapid and labored breathing
    Yes: Seek Care
    Is a greenish-yellow or grey phlegm being coughed up?Yes:Call Doctor

    Self-Care Procedures

    For people affected by air pollution or pollen:

    • Put on a face mask that covers the nose and mouth
    • Most hardware stores carry inexpensive ones.
    • Don't smoke. Avoid secondhand smoke

      (Note: This applies to anyone with breathing difficulties.)

    • Install an air filtering system in your home or an air purifier, especially in the bedroom. Tests show that air filters help clear the air of allergy-causing agents.

    For people allergic to molds, breathing problems can be avoided or lessened if you:

    • Do not rake leaves that have sat on the ground for awhile. Molds and mildew grow on leaves after they've been on the ground for a few days.
    • Keep your basement dry, well ventilated and well lighted. Use dehumidifiers and exhaust fans to reduce moisture in the air.
    • Get rid of house plants.

    If you or anyone in your family has serious allergies, it is a good idea to wear a medical identification tag such as ones available at drug stores or ones custom made by Medic Alert Foundation.

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