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Shortness of breath, also known as dyspnea, is a common and sometimes serious symptom. Here are five things you can do for your shortness of breath treatment, and some guidelines on when to see a doctor for breathing problems.

Shortness of breath, also known as dyspnea, is a common symptom of diseases both benign and deadly. Shortness of breath treatment can be as simple as a home remedy, or as complex as being put on a ventilator in an intensive care unit. But how do you know whether shortness of breath is a passing problem or something that requires immediate medical attention.

Different People Describe Dyspnea in Different Ways

Some people experience shortness of breath as stridor. This kind of dyspnea causes a grating or harsh vibrating sound during exhalation. It can originate in the voice box. [1] It originates at the bottom of the throat or in the lungs. It is different from the snoring sound known as stertor, which originates higher in the throat, above the vocal folds. [2]

Some people experience shortness of breath as crackles. These are short, punctuated, high-pitched sounds that are something like the popping of a fireplace. There are also people experience shortness of breath as rales. These are lower-pitched, crumpling sounds that are also periodic. (For diagnostic purposes, crackles and rales are essentially the same thing.) And all of us are familiar with wheezing, the high-pitched sound of labored breathing that can be easily heard across the room. [3]

Stridor, stertor, crackles, rales, and wheezing aren't diseases. They are symptoms of an underlying condition. Sometimes the underlying problem may be something you need to go to the emergency room to get treated right away. Sometimes it may be something you need to make an appointment for your doctor to diagnose. And sometimes it may be something you can handle with natural shortness of breath treatment. Here's how to tell the difference.

Do You Need to See the Doctor for Shortness of Breath Treatment or Can you Manage Dyspnea Naturally?

There are times that shortness of breath signals a medical emergency:

  • The problem comes on suddenly, and
  • Interferes with your ability to function.

Chest pain, nausea, or fainting can be signs of heart attack or pulmonary embolism, both of which must be treated in a hospital as soon as possible.

There are also times that shortness of breath is something you can wait a few hours to get treated if it isn't getting worse. Make an appointment to see your doctor when:

  • You have wheezing.
  • You have trouble breathing when you lie flat on your back.
  • You have swelling in your feet or ankles.
  • You have chills, cough, or fever.
  • You already have chronic shortness of breath that has gotten worse.

If you have chronic shortness of breath that isn't getting worse, you should have a treatment plan with your doctor. You also should maintain a normal weight, avoid smoking, avoid air pollution, live at an altitude below 5000 feet/1600 meters, and use supplemental oxygen as directed. But if you have shortness of breath because you are getting over a cold, or because you worked out a little too hard, or you were exposed to dust or chemical fumes that isn't interfering with your ability to function (it's just making you uncomfortable), there are a variety of home remedies that help.

Natural Shortness of Breath Treatment

Here are five natural ways to manage dyspnea: 

  1. Pursed lip breathing. Whether you are winded at high elevation, tuckered out after exercise, or even if you suffer COPD [3], pursed lip breathing can relieve shortness of breath. The method is very simple. Sit up straight with your shoulders relaxed. Breathe in through your nose. Slowly (but not so slowly that you feel strained), breathe out through pursed lips. (If you can't picture making a little "purse" out of your lips, just "pucker up.") This "unidirectional" increases the volume of air you inhale and exhale and increases the pressure of each breath [4].
  2. "Abdominal" or deep breathing. This method takes pursed lip breathing a little farther. You breathe in unidirectionally, through your nose and out your mouth, but you also seek to fill up the lower reaches of your lungs with even more air. To do this kind of breathing exercise, lie down comfortably, with a pillow or pillows if you need them. Breathe in through nose deeply, filling your lungs with air. Then breathe out comfortably and slowly through your mouth to empty your lungs of air. If you are dealing with acute shortness of breath, you can do this while you are waiting for the doctor. If you are dealing with chronic shortness of breath, you and your doctor may choose to do this exercise once or twice a day every day. This exercise helps build up core strength [5]. It can also relieve lower back pain [6].
  3. Steam inhalation. This is a method of breaking up mucus that causes congestion. It's done either with an old-fashioned vaporizer or with a handheld steam inhaler. This is particularly helpful with sinus headaches [7]. It's not a good idea to sleep with a steam unit on your face, because of the potential for damaging lung tissue if the steam is not actively exhaled [8], and it's not something you should let small children do unattended due to risk of burns [9]. You get the benefits of steam without the heat with an ultrasound nebulizer. 
  4. Coffee. A strong cup of coffee (with caffeine, decaf won't work) is an old remedy for restoring exhalation capacity after treatment with codeine or morphine. It will also work on mild shortness of breath caused by allergy or exposure to dust and fumes. [10] Avoid coffee if you are sensitive to caffeine.
  5. Ginger. This herb counteracts the effects of beta-blockers on the respiratory tract [11]. If your blood pressure medicine gives you shortness of breath, ginger in any form may help. You need about 1 tablespoon (15 g) of fresh or pickled ginger or one teaspoon of dry ginger (5 g) to make a difference.

A Note on Breathing Problems in Small Children

The best home remedy for "the wheezies" in children under the age of six is a humidifier or a nebulizer. These devices are appropriate for treating shortness of breath when the child is getting over a viral infection, but they aren't good for primary treatment. Sudden shortness of breath, particularly with sounds of a struggle to breathe when the child is exhaling, are a sign of a swallowed object. This requires immediate medical attention.

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