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How Can I Tell if Someone is Short of Breath?

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Updated January 24, 2014

Question: How Can I Tell if Someone is Short of Breath?

Answer: The best way to tell if someone is having trouble breathing is to ask him. Shortness of breath -- also known as dyspnea -- is a feeling, so asking really is the best assessment tool. If he or she can't answer you as a result of being out of breath, it's a strong sign of troubled breathing.

Another good assessment tool is to watch the person breath. Regardless of the cause of shortness of breath, the only way for the body to get more oxygen is to get more air. Victims of shortness of breath look like they've just finished running uphill:

  • They use chest and neck muscles to take deep breaths
  • They purse their lips when they exhale
  • They rest their hands on their knees to help expand the chest
  • They're "winded" or unable to speak long sentences
Folks with severe shortness of breath probably need emergency medical help. Call 911 for any victim of shortness of breath with the following symptoms:
  • Can't speak more than two words at a time
    If a victim of shortness of breath can't control his or her breathing long enough to say an entire sentence, it's time to call 911.

     

  • Getting weak
    When a victim of shortness of breath is too weak to hold his or her head upright, it means the lack of oxygen is affecting muscle strength. In fact, victims of shortness of breath usually sit forward and tall, often resting hands on knees to let the muscles of the chest work on breathing rather than on posture.

     

  • Getting confused
    Losing the ability to concentrate means the brain is now affected by the lack of oxygen. This is a very dangerous condition and needs immediate medical attention. These victims may need emergency responders to breathe for them.

     

Sources:

Henry, Mark C., and Edward R. Stapleton. EMT Prehospital Care. 3rd Ed. 2004. Mosby/Jems

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