Shortness of breath has many different causes, and the treatment of shortness of breath is specific for each cause. In many cases, the only way to treat shortness of breath is to call 911 or take the victim to a doctor or emergency department for evaluation. Besides figuring out what is causing the shortness of breath, healthcare providers will also be able to provide supplemental oxygen to help the victim breathe easier.
There are, however, some first aid steps you can use to treat shortness of breath, at least until the ambulance arrives or you are able to get the victim to a hospital. For victims of shortness of breath, try these steps:
- Have the victim rest. The more energy you expend, the more oxygen you use and the more short of breath you feel. Think about a good workout at the gym. Exercise hard enough and you will feel short of breath. The cure? Take a break. Not sure if the victim is having trouble breathing? Take a look at these symptoms of shortness of breath.
- Let the victim sit, stand or lay however is the most comfortable. There are a lot of myths about how some body positions supposedly provide more airflow than others. Coaches regularly tell players to hold their arms above their heads to maximize chest expansion. Paramedics assume the "tripod position" of sitting on the edge of a chair or bed and leaning forward, propped up with hands or elbows on knees, is the best position for victims of shortness of breath. Every person is different, however, so let the victim decide what position feels most comfortable.
- Call 911. If resting in a position of comfort isn't doing the trick after 2 or 3 minutes, it's time to call 911. Shortness of breath has many causes and some of them are quite serious. In the worst case scenario, shortness of breath is caused by a heart attack, sudden lung problem or life-threatening poisoning -- in which case calling 911 could truly mean the difference between life or death. This is a good place to use your best judgment: If you believe the victim is severely short of breath, call 911 immediately.
- Use oxygen. This is a special case used only for folks with chronic lung problems. If the victim has oxygen available, this is what it's for. During episodes of shortness of breath, the victim should use his or her oxygen as directed by a doctor. The victim may have been told by his or her doctor that too much oxygen for too long might cause more problems. Assure the victim that sudden increases in shortness of breath are the instances in which oxygen is needed most and not to worry about using too much oxygen when feeling short of breath (especially if the ambulance is already on the way).
- Treat the cause of shortness of breath. There are many causes of shortness of breath and many of them are treatable. Asthma patients, for example, often have multiple tools and drugs available to fix sudden shortness of breath. Victims of lung infections might need to see a doctor for treatment and heart attack victims may need an ambulance.