Breathing Problems: When Should I Go to the ER?

Severe shortness of breath that comes on suddenly and affects your ability to function is always a reason to call 911 or have someone drive you to the ER immediately. This is especially true if your breathing problems are accompanied by chest pain, fainting or nausea — potential signs of a heart attack or pulmonary embolism.

For less severe shortness of breath, make a doctor’s appointment if your pre-existing shortness of breath worsens or is accompanied by:

  • Swollen feet and ankles
  • Difficulty breathing when you lie flat
  • High fever, chills and cough
  • Wheezing

There are many conditions that cause shortness of breath, including those that are acute (come on suddenly) and those that are chronic (have lasted for weeks or longer). Here are some of the most common.

Your home’s air quality can play a big role in your health. Follow these tips to help your family breathe easier.

  • Quit smoking. No surprise here; it’s the leading cause of lung cancer. Exposure to secondhand smoke can have serious consequences for adult nonsmokers and children in the household too, including asthma, bronchitis, pneumonia and ear infections.
  • Use low- or zero-VOC paint to reduce odors, fumes and cancer-causing agents.
  • Maintain your HVAC system by replacing dirty filters with the highest-quality filters you can afford and having your air ducts inspected and cleaned as needed.
  • Consider purchasing a portable high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) air purifier and/or a HEPA vacuum cleaner. HEPA filters are the best you can get and remove ultrafine particles that others miss.
  • Burn real wood rather than pressed wood products (which may contain formaldehyde) in fireplaces and stoves.
  • Check for radon, a colorless, odorless naturally occurring radioactive gas. Radon is the second leading cause of lung cancer and No. 1 cause among nonsmokers. About 1 in every 15 homes has a level that needs to be reduced. Buy a test kit for less than $20 at home improvement and hardware stores.
  • Test smoke alarms monthly and replace alkaline batteries at least once a year. Every floor of your home, every bedroom, and every hallway should have an alarm. Surprisingly, they don’t last forever, so replace after 10 years.
  • Purchase inexpensive carbon monoxide detectors ($20-$40) and put in the hallway near every separate sleeping area. These should be replaced every 10 years; you’ll find the replacement date listed on the product.
  • Reduce asthma triggers such as pet hair, carpet, smoke, etc.
  • Let your house breathe by venting bathrooms, dryers and attics to prevent mold.

If you are having a medical emergency, call 911.