It’s a frightening feeling when you can’t catch your breath. Breathing problems are particularly scary because they can be their own worst enemy: Difficulty breathing creates anxiety, which makes the breathing problem even worse. If someone around you is having problems breathing, it’s important that you stay calm. Don’t panic, call for help, check the pulse, and place the injured person in a position that’s best for him or her to breathe and to keep airways clear. (Most likely, the best position to ease breathing is either sitting up or semi-reclining.)
Breathing problems range from hyperventilation to asthma to allergy attacks, each of which has its own first aid treatment. These conditions can be tricky sometimes they appear to be worse than they actually are, and other times they really are as serious as they look so you have to be on your toes if you want to help.
When someone suddenly can’t catch his or her breath, it’s hard to stay cool. But that’s exactly when calm, sound logic can mean the difference between life and death. Asthma is a common ailment; millions of Americans suffer its breathless slings. In many cases, someone having an asthma attack will know what to do. He or she may have an inhalator (a tube-like apparatus that you place in the mouth and pump with your hand) handy, which can aid breathing until help arrives.
But what if it’s a child who suddenly can’t catch his or her breath? Or a colleague or a stranger who doesn’t have an inhalator at hand?
The first step is to recognize an asthma attack for what it is: It’s not simply a case of hyperventilation, which occurs when a person literally breathes in too much oxygen and begins feeling dizzy and anxious, has chest pains, and feels tingling in the fingers and toes. An asthma attack sounds terrible; a person is literally fighting to catch his or her breath. He might lean over, move around, or act quite agitated, or he might sit in a chair with his head back using all his body’s energy to breathe. There might be a cough, a rasping of breath, or a rattle. Breathing itself will use almost the whole upper torso, the neck, the shoulders, and, of course, the mouth.
If any of these signs occur, try to get help as fast as you can. If the person has an inhalator, use it. Although you cannot be sure an asthma attack is in progress, the longer you wait for help, the more serious the attack will become. Remember, asthma can kill if it’s not treated early enough. If you wait too long, even an inhalator won’t help.
The main goal before help comes is to get the person to breathe as normally as possible. This is done through position, comfort, and relaxation.
Position: Have the victim sit up or lean back in a semi-reclining position, whichever is the most comfortable. Do not let the person lie flat; it can make breathing even more difficult. Use an inhalator if the person has one or if you have one available.
Comfort: Loosen any clothing around the neck and chest.
Relaxation: Say soothing words and use calm motions to keep anxiety at bay.