Laboured breathing, medically known as respiratory distress, is defined as shortness of breath or struggle to breathe, or uncomfortable breathing. Laboured breathing is believed to be frightening and may cause an individual to feel tired or worn out, sometimes it may signify a medical emergency.

 Some people may experience shortness of breath abruptly for a short period, while others may feel it over the long term, for instance, several weeks and more. To other people, even fast walking or climbing the stairs, risks difficult breathing, especially if suffering from a cold.


Doctors advise that if you notice signs like inability to talk, gasping for air, wheezing, drooling, dizziness or fainting, profuse sweating, wet skin, it calls for medical attention.


According to Dr Joseph Ryarasa Nkurunziza, Chairperson of Health Development Initiative Rwanda (HDI), some of the causes of laboured breathing could be lung problems, for example, lung cancer, pleurisy (inflammation of the membrane surrounding the lungs), pulmonary oedema (a condition caused by excess fluid in the lungs), pulmonary fibrosis (scarred and damaged lungs), pulmonary hypertension and sarcoidosis (collections of inflammatory cells in the body).


He adds that tuberculosis, pneumonia, heart attack, stable angina, upper airway obstruction (chocking on something), anaemia, carbon monoxide poisoning can also trigger laboured breathing.

Healthline states that the other causes of breathing difficulty could be environmental factors such as, allergies to dust, mould, or pollen, stress, and anxiety, blocked air passages from a stuffy nose or throat phlegm and lowered oxygen intake from climbing to a high altitude.

Nkurunziza says that you’re at a greater risk of breathing problems if you have allergies, experience constant stress, or have a chronic lung or heart condition, and obesity.

He adds that obesity around the abdomen leads to worsening lung function and respiratory symptoms, and obese individuals have low lung reserve and may thus have difficulty in providing enough oxygen for their body.

WebMD states that smoking causes breathing problems because it damages the tubes, or “airways” that carry air to the lungs. It also damages the tiny air sacs, or “alveoli” in the lungs that move oxygen into the blood and remove carbon dioxide. Even second-hand smoke can lead to breathing problems.

Nkurunziza explains that the shortness of breath could be due to dehydration, without having enough fluids, the body cannot provide cells with enough energy. Dehydration can be as a result of not taking enough water, spending lengthy periods of time in high temperatures, and drinking a lot of dehydrating beverages, such as coffee and alcohol.

Home remedies

Medics urge eating fresh ginger, or adding some hot water as a drink, to reduce shortness of breath that occurs due to a respiratory infection. One study suggests that ginger may be effective in fighting the respiratory syncytial virus, which is a common cause of respiratory infections.

Nkurunziza says that if you’re having trouble breathing but can’t find a place to sit, at least lean against firm support. “You can find a wall and lean your back against it as this can help relax your body and airways.”

He adds that turmeric has antibacterial and anti-inflammatory properties that keep you away from all infections. Adding that Omega-3 fatty acid foods like, fish-salmon can help deal with gasping or difficult breathing. They help prevent inflammatory conditions that could cause shortness of breath.

Diagnosis and treatment

“Laboured breathing problems are diagnosed by doing a physical exam, examining the overall health, and using various tests. Lung function tests, these include, spirometry and a test known as methacholine challenge chest X-ray,” Nkurunziza says.

For treatment, he urges using a ventilator to help one to breathe, apply oxygen therapy so as to increase the quantity of oxygen in the lungs and providing breathing medications to open up closed airways.

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