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Respiratory distress

​​​​​​​​Difficulty breathing is called respiratory distress. When it's in the most advanced stage, doctors called it acute respiratory distress syndrome.

If you are not breathing correctly, it can be a life-threatening condition that requires immediate emergency attention.

Knowing the signs of respiratory distress can save your life or the life of someone close to you.

Pulmonary specialists at Marshfield Clinic treat all types of diseases and conditions of your respiratory system.​

Learning the signs of respiratory distress

People having trouble breathing often show signs that they are having to work harder to breathe or are not getting enough oxygen, indicating respiratory distress.

Below is a list of some of the signs that may indicate that a person is working harder to breathe and may not be getting enough oxygen.

It is important to learn the signs of respiratory distress to know how to respond. Always see a doctor for a diagnosis:

  • Breathing rate. An increase in the number of breaths per minute may mean that a person is having trouble breathing or not getting enough oxygen.

  • Color changes. A bluish color seen around the mouth, on the inside of the lips, or on the fingernails may occur when a person is not getting as much oxygen as needed. The color of the skin may also appear pale or gray.

  • Grunting. A grunting sound can be heard each time the person exhales. This grunting is the body's way of trying to keep air in the lungs so they will stay open.

  • Nose flaring. The openings of the nose spreading open while breathing may mean that a person is having to work harder to breathe.

  • Retractions. The chest appears to sink in just below the neck and/or under the breastbone with each breath--one way of trying to bring more air into the lungs. This can also be seen under the rib cage or even the muscles between the ribs.

  • Sweating. There may be increased sweat on the head, but the skin does not feel warm to the touch. More often, the skin may feel cool or clammy. This may happen when the breathing rate is very fast.

  • Wheezing. A tight, whistling or musical sound heard with each breath can mean that the air passages may be smaller (tighter), making it harder to breathe.

If you see someone with these symptoms, call 911. If the person is in a health care facility, immediately notify a health care professional.  You may also want to consider taking a first aid or CPR class so you are prepared for medical emergencies. 

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What Do You Know About COPD?

Smoking is the main cause of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), a serious illness that makes breathing difficult. Take this quiz to find out more about COPD and how to prevent it.

1. Which of the following diseases is included in the umbrella term COPD?
2. People in what age group are most likely to say they have symptoms of COPD?
3. Long-term exposure to which of the following can increase the risk for COPD?
4. Which of the following can help improve your health if you have COPD?
5. Respiratory infections are major health risks for someone with COPD. Which of the following steps helps prevent these dangerous infections?
6. How is COPD treated?
7. Which of the following eating habits can help people with COPD stay healthy?
8. Which of the following ideas can help you stay active if you have COPD?