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respiratory distress

Plan for It: Respiratory Distress & How to Respond

Posted in: Blogs , English

If someone around you displays signs of respiratory distress, will you know what to do? Before an emergency happens, plan for it.

Know the Signs of Respiratory Distress

Many people who suffer respiratory distress exhibit signs they’re having to work harder to breathe or not getting enough oxygen. Look out for these symptoms.

  • Increased breathing rateWhen people have trouble breathing, they may take more breaths per minute to compensate.

  • Nose flaringIf a person opens their nostrils wider with each breath, this could indicate he or she is having to work harder to breathe.

  • Color changesIf you see a bluish color around someone’s mouth, on the inside of their lips, or on the fingernails, he or she may not be getting enough oxygen. The color of the person’s face could also appear pale or gray.

  • GruntingSometimes, you may hear a person in respiratory distress make a grunting noise during each exhale. This sound is the body’s way of trying to keep air in the lungs.

  • SweatingVictims of respiratory distress may have sweat on their heads while their skin feels cool or clammy to the touch. This can happen when the breathing rate is very fast.

  • WheezingIf you hear a tight, whistling sound with each breath, this could indicate the air passages may be tighter than usual.

  • RetractionsA retraction is when a person’s chest appears to sink in under the breastbone or under the neck with each breath. This is one way the body brings more air into the lungs. It can also be seen under the rib cage or in the muscles between the ribs.

Know the Causes of Respiratory Distress

"Anything that causes lack of oxygen or impaired breathing can lead to respiratory distress. These include:

  • Asthma
  • COPD
  • Pneumonia or other lung infection
  • Pulmonary embolism
  • Collapsed lung
  • Lung cancer
  • Airway obstruction
  • Heart disease such as congestive heart failure
  • Severe allergic reaction
  • Nerve/muscle dysfunction that affects muscles used in breathing
  • Severe anemia
  • Poisoning or medication overdose
  • High altitudes."

-Dr. Irena Liang, primary care physician at Primary Care & Convenient Care - Baylor St. Luke’s Medical Group - The Woodlands, Texas

What to Do if Someone Stops Breathing

If you’re with someone who’s in respiratory distress, call 911 and a professional can assess the situation and recommend next steps. In general, you can plan on the following:

  • If the person is not making sounds, this indicates they are choking. In this instance, you can begin the Heimlich maneuver.

  • If the person is not choking but stops breathing or falls unconscious, begin administering CPR.

  • If you suspect anaphylaxis from allergies, administer epinephrine and head to the emergency room immediately.

  • If the person has a known breathing condition, help the victim take his or her prescribed inhaler or medication and head to the emergency room.

Preventing Severe Allergic & Asthmatic Attacks

“For an asthma attack, you should use your medications as prescribed. If you notice worsening of your symptoms, talk to your doctor about whether or not your medications can be optimized. Understand what triggers can worsen your asthma and try to avoid them. It is important to have an asthma ‘action plan’ and know where to go according to how bad your symptoms are (office vs. emergency room).

With allergic reactions, you need to understand that any medication or substance can potentially cause a severe allergic reaction. Know the signs of a severe allergic reaction. If you have a history of severe allergic reaction, ask your doctor about an EpiPen in case of emergency. Seek help earlier rather than later because allergic reactions can rapidly progress.”

-Dr. Irena Liang, primary care physician at Primary Care & Convenient Care - Baylor St. Luke’s Medical Group - The Woodlands, Texas

St. Luke’s Health Emergency Services has both hospital and freestanding ERs throughout the Greater Houston area to best serve our community. Find a location near you to know where to go when minutes matter.

Signs of Respiratory Distress
Respiratory Problems


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