How can I alleviate this shortness of breath?
January 2, 2008 3:11 PM   Subscribe

I feel like I can't take a full breath and can't get to a doctor for a few days. Anything I can do in the meanwhile?

Yes, it's a medical question... I am hoping someone can share a similar experience and has advice.

For the last week or so I've been feeling out of breath in the afternoons - feel like I can't inhale all the way, even when I intentionally take deep breaths it feels like I am not getting enough air. This is causing me to feel lightheaded and interfering with my work and leisure time.

I am not congested or coughing, but have the symptoms of a mild cold or allergies: occasionally sneezing, red, itchy eyes, swollen glands on my neck (one is quite hard and a bit painful.) Feel a slight tightness in my chest when I try to breathe deeply but not otherwise. No history of asthma, I'm not particularly stressed, I've been traveling but am back home now so no new allergens there.

It comes on in the afternoons and goes away by evening, and doesn't seem to have gotten any better or worse in the past week. I'm seeing a doctor Tuesday but is there anything I can do to make the shortness of breath go away faster? Or could this be emergency-room-worthy? It really sucks but doesn't seem to be killing me/making me pass out.
posted by Mr Bunnsy to Health & Fitness (31 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Is there any environmental factors that could be in play here? There's a number of toxic substances that can interfere with the blood's ability to carry oxygen to your cells. If you're reporting to work normally on the days where this happens you might consider staying home, or better yet somewhere else where people can see if you keel over.

That said, this is something that to me would cause a visit to urgent care. There's a multitude in your area.
posted by phearlez at 3:16 PM on January 2, 2008

PLEASE GO TO THE DOCTOR NOW. I had the same symptoms, and it turned out that I had several pulmonary embolisms in my lungs. Had I waited to go to the emergency room, I wouldn't be here typing this to you! My best friend had the same thing happen to her a few months later. We are both young (30's) and otherwise healthy (mine was due to birth control and here's to a mild leg injury that formed clots that traveled). She went to the ER when she started having trouble breathing because of my ER visit, and it SAVED HER LIFE!

Please don't wait to get this checked out--even if it isn't blood clots, there may be something else serious going on there!
posted by batcrazy at 3:27 PM on January 2, 2008 [1 favorite]

Seconding the urgi-care idea. I've had to use the local center a couple times, and have always had a good experience... almost better than my regular doctor, really.
You need to rule out anything dangerous, to be sure.
posted by dosterm at 3:31 PM on January 2, 2008

The term is dyspnea should you wish to do any searches. And yes, get it checked out soon.
posted by NucleophilicAttack at 3:47 PM on January 2, 2008

Do you have a primary care physician? Call them, they'll have someone at call after hours. Ask them for advice o. n getting urgent care
posted by theora55 at 3:54 PM on January 2, 2008

When I don't have my prescription inhaler nearby, I run to the drugstore and buy an over the counter inhaler. Asthma pills are also available OTC, but they don't have an immediate effect.
posted by HotPatatta at 4:10 PM on January 2, 2008

you don't say how old you are or where you've been travelling or how long the other respiratory symptoms have been there..............

but YES you do need to see a doctor before Tuesday.

(Genghis, try to be nicer for the new year huh?)
posted by Wilder at 4:12 PM on January 2, 2008

HotPatatta: Do any of the OTCs work as well as albuterol?
posted by rbs at 4:15 PM on January 2, 2008

I get this every few months, and it's always stress-related. No doctor has ever been able to find anything physically wrong with me. You should definitely still go to the doctor as soon as possible, but to counter some of the experiences above, it's not necessarily life-threatening.
posted by arianell at 4:23 PM on January 2, 2008

Theora55 has the best suggestion - talk to the on-call person at your doctor's office if you have one. Sure it could be just a cold... but pulmonary embolism was the first thing I thought of too. You really need to talk to someone who knows more than we do on askmefi.
posted by selfmedicating at 4:40 PM on January 2, 2008

HotPatatta: Do any of the OTCs work as well as albuterol?
posted by rbs at 4:15 PM on January 2 [+] [!]

I've got asthma, and the only OTC rescue inhaler I've been able to find is Primatine Mist--which is nasty stuff. Whenever I take a shot of PM my heart rate skyrockets, blood pressure goes up, I get tremors-- and a rattling cough about 4 hours after taking the dose. (Only time I use PM is in the rare case that I'm out of albuterol, and can't get my perscription filled) The albuterol is a LOT better--more effective, and without the horrible side effects of the OTC crap.
posted by pushing paper and bottoming chairs at 4:50 PM on January 2, 2008

If you really weren't getting enough air in you would be dizzy and probably turning blue. Also, you'd be alarmed enough to already have gone to the emergency room. I would bet that it's stress/anxiety or very mild asthma. I've had symptoms like this and it was one of the two or both. Lots of people are like "I don't feel stressed, this thing I feel can't be stress related!" That's often because stress or tension is manifesting in some physical way (trouble breathing) rather than an explicitly psychological one.

Honestly I would try relaxing, drinking tea and doing something to distract yourself, such as watching a movie or some other activity you like. The light headedness and chest tightness are likely because of how hard you're trying to take a deep breath.

That said if you begin to feel like you truly cannot get air, you should get to the ER immediately. Hell, even if you are getting enough air but are freaked the hell out, get to an ER, they'll either tell you you're fine or give you an inhaler, then tell you you're fine. Then you will feel better.

I've been there, it's a really annoying, uncomfortable, unpleasant, and nervewracking feeing. Good luck and feel better.
posted by sneakin at 5:07 PM on January 2, 2008

Go to the doctor - they will probably screen you for asthma, allergies, maybe some type of subtle infection like walking pneumonia. You can develop allergies and asthma at any age, so don't rule anything out until you go see your doctor.

Go to the hospital right away if you experience any symptoms that might indicate you aren't getting enough oxygen - nail beds and/or lips turning blue is a big one which means your oxygen saturation is low. Same thing if you start feeling uncomfortably dizzy, like you're going to pass out, suddenly start having short term memory loss/blackouts or are unable to walk or talk without feeling winded, etc.

If the shortness of breath is only slight and you suspect it's allergy related, here are a few things allergy/asthma sufferers from a veteran - a cup of black coffee may help out in a pinch, a hot shower or sitting in the steamy bathroom with the door closed while hot water runs may help you breathe easier. These are all only temporary fixes though and everyone is different, so what helps some might make someone else feel worse. For example, while it's commonly said that cold, dry air makes asthma symptoms worse, I have always found relief from it - and have spent more than a few weezy moments bundled up trying to avoid freezing with my head stuck out of the window in the dead of winter.

I have to respond to the suggestion above about OTC asthma meds - please be careful with them! They are not very safe and whatever temporary benefit they may serve will only mask what could be a bigger problem - most use epinephrine and are basically like taking speed. You can google around to find plenty of information about them but until you see a doctor you may be better off talking nothing.
posted by SassHat at 5:22 PM on January 2, 2008

Head to the hospital, breathing is one of those things that you shouldn't fiddle around with.
posted by iamabot at 5:26 PM on January 2, 2008

My husband was diagnosed with asthma as an adult and it's brought on by allergies. It got very severe very fast one weekend and we had to make a mad dash to urgent care. It was not fun. I think you should head to urgent care before Tuesday.

I know it might not escalate to a full asthma attack, but why risk it? A trip to urgent care might be worth it.
posted by christinetheslp at 5:37 PM on January 2, 2008

I've often experienced what you've described exactly: I would intentionally inhale extra deeply, but would feel as though I couldn't get a deep enough breath. Please do not take my anecdote as advice, but it ended up being a result of the anxiety I was experiencing. I was trying to breathe deeper as a way of curbing the stress I was feeling, but ended up hyperventilating, which was completely counterproductive to assuaging my anxiety.

Using a paper bag (cliché as it may sound) - as suggested by my physician - helped me regulate my breathing, and the process of doing such allowed me to take a break, slow down, and ultimately helped me feel as though I was getting enough oxygen.

So, if you're adamant about not visiting the ER before your doctor's appointment (though I heartily recommend you doing so; nothing is more precious than your health!), I suggest you try this method. And remember: you might be working your lungs too hard by trying to breathe so deeply, so try to limit your breathing depth to normal levels for a period to see if that bears any effect.
posted by numinous at 5:56 PM on January 2, 2008

Get yourself to a doctor. It's most likely just anxiety or stress induced which I've had 100 times but knowing for sure will help relieve it.
posted by Octoparrot at 5:59 PM on January 2, 2008

I've had the same symptoms. It can be serious or not - get it checked out immediately either at your ER or by calling your doctor's practice and getting the on-call doctor. Do not take no for an answer, and do not let them fob you off. Breathing is serious - when you can't do it well, something bad is going on.
posted by zippy at 6:11 PM on January 2, 2008

Any chance you have a bad gas in your home, like carbon monoxide? Is there a detector in your place? Are the symptoms the same even if you're in a different location in the afternoon?
posted by pseudostrabismus at 6:22 PM on January 2, 2008

Or could this be emergency-room-worthy?

Yes, it is emergency room worthy. I had asthma as a teen and a doctor told me this is something that justifies an ER visit. It's unfortunate what people will talk themselves into living with.
posted by jayder at 6:30 PM on January 2, 2008

Are you a tall, thin male in your 20s/30s? If so, there's a good chance that you are experiencing a spontaneous pneumothorax (commonly known as a collapsed lung).

A few months ago, I had similar symptoms to what you were describing (although mine were a bit more severe, and I didn't have the flu-like symptoms), and I kept trying to shrug them off. Later in the day I finally went to the ER, and I am so glad I did... I found out that my right lung had collapsed, and that I needed immediate surgery.

Not sure if this is what you are experiencing, but anything involving breathing can get scary quickly... try to talk to a doctor if possible.
posted by stilly at 7:22 PM on January 2, 2008

2nd yr med student, so IANAD (yet) and yes, go on to the emergency room--with the swollen LN, (esp if it's painful) it sounds more viral and bacterial, but the shortness of breath isn't something to toy with. It can be anything respiratory or cardiac: my cardiac phys prof just had a little SOB and it turned out that he had 90% blockages in some of the major coronary arteries (around the heart). So yes, go ahead and be safe than sorry.
posted by uncballzer at 7:51 PM on January 2, 2008

ps, in response to stilly above my reply; spon pneumo esp if "tall, thin, smoking*, young male".
posted by uncballzer at 7:53 PM on January 2, 2008

oh, and one last thing, let us know how it goes/diagnosis? thanks!
posted by uncballzer at 7:54 PM on January 2, 2008

DO see a doc right away. However, when you do, be sure to let them know if you are undergoing any stressful situations. I had very similar symptoms, and it was entirely stress related.

NOTE: "stress-related" does not mean "oh it's nothing." STRESS KILLS! It constricts your blood flow, leading to shortness of breath, racing heart, dizziness, and many other symptoms.

When you see your doctor, do not be embarrassed or think it's not important to mention stress from: family or relationship situations, work, feelings of crisis, feelings of heartbreak, depression, financial issues, anxiety over upcoming circumstances; recent death in the family, or anything else that may be causing stress, even at a subliminal level.

Go to a doc right away. Get better.
posted by The Deej at 10:14 PM on January 2, 2008

Thanks for the concern everyone - I took the "get to the emergency room" advice, though by the time I was seen my symptoms went away as they have done the past few evenings. Six hours later I am back home with perfectly normal test results, a nasty IV needle bruise, and a prescription for anti-anxiety meds.

I would be a lot more satisfied with the stress/anxiety explanation if this had happened 3-4 weeks ago - I was very very stressed due to work and life stuff. But I got sick during a relaxing vacation I was taking to DE-stress!

I will be following up with a regular doctor and re-reading the above comments carefully for suggestions and ideas, in case there is a medical cause. Thank you again for the concern.
posted by Mr Bunnsy at 10:51 PM on January 2, 2008

I would be a lot more satisfied with the stress/anxiety explanation if this had happened 3-4 weeks ago - I was very very stressed due to work and life stuff. But I got sick during a relaxing vacation I was taking to DE-stress!

Actually, this totally makes sense. Before your body was in fight or flight mode dealing with the stress and worrying about keeping you alive. It wasn't until you relaxed that it actually registered what had gone on and started to process it. This isn't the way it always works but it pretty common, particularly when the stress doesn't go on too long, and makes sense from a physiological viewpoint too.

I'm glad you got it checked out and hope you'll be OK.
posted by shelleycat at 11:31 PM on January 2, 2008

See a doctor. However, I think it's anxiety. You may not be fully emptying your lungs, resulting in the feeling that you can't get a full breath, which will cause more stress, etc. It's almost a mild hyperventilating. Try taking a breath in, holding it a long time, then blow out very slowly, through pursed lips. Repeat.
posted by tom_g at 4:21 AM on January 3, 2008

Sorry. Just read that you had it checked out. I would highly recommend that you read about the breathing techniques. It can seriously help immediately. Sometimes the ER docs and primary care physicians are not trained to fully treat anxiety. I would recommend talking to a mental health professional, as this is quite common - and very treatable.
Good luck.
posted by tom_g at 4:25 AM on January 3, 2008

I'm glad you got it checked. I know it's a pain to go in and not feel like you are any further ahead. But I have done the same thing.

I had some chest pains a couple years ago, and I was 99% sure it was nothing to be worried about. But I went in anyway. Of course, once you say "chest pain" they go into high-drama mode, even though I kept saying it was probably nothing. When I talked to the doctor, I told him I was sure it was nothing, but I didn't want to die of stupidity. Better safe than sorry. They did an EKG and blood work, gave me a 24 hour heart monitor and sent me home.

As it turns out, even though that visit in itself didn't really tell me anything, it was helpful when I did see my regular doctor a month later. He did a treadmill test, and looked at the earlier results and discovered that I do have arrythmia, which, although not dangerous, and does not affect my ability to do anything, can cause some weird feelings. He was able to tell me how to know the difference between the regular arrythmia symptoms, and other things that might be of concern.

Anyway, I hope you get a good report when all is said and done.
posted by The Deej at 5:54 AM on January 3, 2008

When you follow up with your doctor, ask for a PFT (Pulmonary Function Test) to see whether you have asthma. Your symptoms sound like mine did 8 years ago; a friend whose child had asthma told me that's what I had. I refused to believe her until my doctor confirmed my friend's diagnosis!

On the other hand, last week Mr. Smalltown Girl couldn't catch his breath, no matter what he did. (He's overweight and knows it, but still...) We went to the ER, where they discovered he had walking pneumonia.

Whatever your doc finds out, I wish you well. If it IS stress-related and not a pulmonary disease, get thee some Prozac. I bliss and bless that drug.
posted by Smalltown Girl at 8:33 PM on January 3, 2008

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