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Hi,

I've been helping an elderly neighbor out with her shopping and tidying/cleaning when I can, and we've become quite close over the last eight months or so. She is 78 and has some issues with her pancreas for which she had a biopsy done recently, and she also gets tired quickly, but other than that has no known medical issues.

I was over there yesterday and she had severe breathing difficulties. Not knowing what else to do, I called an ambulance. Thankfully, it showed up in no time. For next time, I would like to know what to do when a person is experiencing shortness of breath, though. I had no idea how to act except call an ambulance, and minutes and even seconds matter sometimes.

Tips please?

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I hope your neighbor is OK now?

It's always good to take a first-aid course of course — almost everyone will be able to use it at one point or another. Shortness of breath is difficult, because there is nothing you can actively do to help the person, but you could still try to point them in the right direction by asking them to breathe through pursed lips, lean forward, lie down, drink coffee, or sit them in front of a working fan. Calling 911 is definitely also a proactive step to take, and I think you made the right call under the circumstances.

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First aid tips for shortness of breath:

- If the person already uses something like an asthma pump or oxygen, help them get it. 

- Check their pulse is normal. 

- Learn CPR. 

- Call the emergency services. 

Basically, given that your neighbor didn't already have a diagnosis (from what I can make out?), you did the right thing. If you want to know how to help people better in emergency situations, then yes, a first aid course is a must. 

It sounds like you both had quite the experience there! Don't feel guilty for not knowing how to make it better, just be grateful you were there to call an ambulance. Setting up a cell phone for her might be good too, if she doesn't have one. 

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Causes of sudden onset breathlessness include:

  • An asthma attack
  • Pneumonia
  • COPD
  • A heart attack
  • Heart failure
  • A panic attack
  • A severe allergic reaction
  • Pulmonary embolism
  • Diabetic ketosis

As a well-meaning but non-medically trained person, you can really not determine what's causing someone's episode. If it's a panic attack, that's unpleasant but it passes without any bad consequences, physically. If it's a heart attack or pneumonia or other things, the condition may end up being fatal. I'd say calling an ambulance IS appropriate "first aid" in this situation. You can only help people better if they've already been diagnosed and it's pretty obvious what's causing their breathlessness.

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Hi,

In case someone is suffering an asthma attack, here are some things you can do to help them feel better.

Keep the person in an upright position as this maximizes airflow. If they have allergic asthma and there is a particular trigger like smoke, dust, pollen and so on, help them remove themselves from this trigger. If they have an asthma pump but do not have it with them, call someone to get it for them. This may be easier than going to the ER. People who have used inhalers but still can't breathe well need to be taken to hospital immediately.

Most of all, keep calm. Your panic will only make the other person panic more, as well, which can make breathing even harder.

Rosie

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Well, my dad has COPD and it's pretty awful. When he just can't catch his breath, it's really scary and frustrating.

I've been trying to convince him to attend yoga because I've read that the breathing techniques you learn in yoga can really help, but he hasn't been too keen so far because he thinks that's all nonsense. What does help for him so far is if I sit with him and we breathe at the same pace together, using the pursed lip technique. The feeling eventually passes.

Another key thing for COPD but not necessarily for shortness of breath in general is to engage in controlled coughs, which you can learn more about from a doctor and through the internet also. 

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You might want to know about POSITIONS that help people breathe more easily when they're suffering from shortness of breath. 

1. Sit down with your head bent forward. Practice deep breathing through the diaphragm. Feet should be flat on the floor and shoulders should be relaxed. If you want, you can have a table in front of you and have several pillows to lean your head onto. 

2. Lie on your side with several pillows to support your head. Have several pillows between your knees as well. 

3. If that is not possible, and if you must keep standing, lean forward onto something supportive and try to relax as much as possible. 

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Causes of shortness of breath in the elderly are quite varied. It could be due to chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, which is also emphysema and chronic bronchitis, or it could be congestive heart failure. Even something seemingly as simple as anemia can lead to breathlessness, believe it or not. 

Something all of these conditions have in common is that there are no first aid measures you can take to help them, as such, in that they all require medical attention. Especially in people who have not been diagnosed and so have no medication regime to follow. All you can do is call the doctor in that situation. 

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I am 78 and have always been very active. I still work in my family business and the mind is still sharp. I still go for long walks, though other physical activities have slowed down recently. It is undeniable that my body is aging. I do feel short of breath quite often, especially on walking stairs, jogging, and so on. I just sit through it and breathe. When it gets to the point where breathing is so taxing that the person agrees an ambulance needs to be called for him, I must agree that this is the only right course of action. 

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