Labored Breathing

If you're having difficulty breathing and it's not related to exercise, seek immediate medical help.

Labored breathing is a general term used to describe when breathing is difficult. The term can be applied to any number of conditions in which breathing is physically impaired. It can also be used if the underlying cause is psychological.

Unlike shortness of breath and wheezing, labored breathing is not a medical term and is not listed as a symptom in the International Classification of Diseases (ICD). Rather, it is a term that most people understand to mean "hard to breathe."

This article looks at different symptoms that may be considered labored breathing and the medical conditions that may cause it. It also explains how labored breathing may be diagnosed and treated.

Verywell / Laura Porter

Symptoms of Labored Breathing

The term "labored breathing" may be applied to any number of symptoms in which your breathing is restricted, obstructed, or impaired. These include:

Other signs of labored breathing include grunting, the flaring of nostrils, intercostal retractions (when the skin pulls in and out between the ribs as you breathe), and cyanosis (the bluish discoloration of the skin due to the lack of oxygen).

In extreme cases, labored breathing can lead to asphyxia if your body doesn't get enough oxygen to keep you from passing out. When labored breathing is caused by the blockage of airflow, suffocation can occur. Both can lead to the same thing: death.

Causes of Labored Breathing

Labored breathing can occur for any number of reasons, from allergic reactions like anaphylaxis to anxiety disorders like post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Labored breathing may also be the result of a restrictive lung disease (in which you have problems expanding the lungs) or an obstructive lung disease (in which you have problems emptying the lungs).

The causes of labored breathing can be broadly classified as being either acute (rapidly developing and often severe) or chronic (persistent and progressive).

Acute Causes
  • Anaphylaxis

  • Asbestosis

  • Choking or asphyxiation

  • Chest or neck injury

  • High altitudes

  • Panic attacks

  • Pericardial effusion

  • Pleural effusion

  • Pneumonia

  • Pneumothorax

  • Pulmonary thrombosis

  • Whooping cough

Chronic Causes
  • Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS)

  • Asthma

  • Congestive heart failure

  • Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)

  • Coronary artery disease

  • Cystic fibrosis

  • Lung cancer

  • Pulmonary edema

  • Pulmonary sarcoidosis

  • Tuberculosis

These are just a few of the many conditions that can cause labored breathing. Even things like extreme temperature changes, overexertion, poor air quality, and obesity can lead to labored breathing.

How to Treat Labored Breathing

The treatment of labored breathing can vary based on the underlying cause. If symptoms are severe, you may receive treatment even if the underlying cause is not yet known.

Primary treatments for labored breathing include:

  • Short-acting beta-agonists: These drugs provide quick relief of shortness of breath and wheezing by relaxing the lungs. They are commonly delivered via an inhaler or nebulizer.
  • Epinephrine injection: This is an injection of epinephrine (adrenaline) used in emergency situations to treat anaphylaxis. It reduces swelling of the airways while narrowing blood vessels to increase blood pressure.
  • Corticosteroids: Also known as steroids, these drugs are used to rapidly reduce inflammation associated with obstructive conditions such as asthma or COPD.
  • Oxygen therapy: Oxygen can be administered through a face mask, nasal cannula, or tracheal intubation to increase blood oxygen levels.
  • Anxiolytics: Anti-anxiety drugs may be prescribed to treat panic attacks and other anxiety disorders that trigger labored breathing.

These are just a few examples of treatments for labored breathing. Due to the wide range of conditions that can cause labored breathing, treatment will differ for each individual.

Are There Tests to Diagnose the Cause of Labored Breathing?

If you have labored breathing, a healthcare provider will order tests and procedures to narrow down the possible causes. The primary tools for the evaluation include:

These initial findings can point your healthcare provider in the direction of the possible causes. They can then decide if additional tests and procedures are needed.

For example, if there is an abnormal ECG, an echocardiogram (which images the heart with reflected sound waves) and cardiac stress test (which evaluates your heart during physical activity) may also be ordered.

When to See a Healthcare Provider

Call 911 for emergency assistance if you experience labored breathing unrelated to exercise that does not subside within a few minutes.

Other signs of a medical emergency include:

  • Gasping for air
  • Wheezing
  • Inability to talk due to breathing problems
  • Dizziness, lightheadedness, or fainting
  • Profuse sweating with clammy skin
  • Skin or lips that are turning blue


Labored breathing is a non-medical term used to describe when breathing is difficult or impaired. It may be due to a physical condition like COPD that directly interferes with respiration. Or it could be a psychological one like a panic attack that does the same.

Labored breathing has many different causes. It can take time and extensive testing before the condition is diagnosed and the appropriate treatment is delivered.

A Word From Verywell

Labored breathing is rarely considered "normal." While it's common to be short of breath after exercise, labored breathing often refers to a problem that is prolonged and abnormal.

Reduced exercise tolerance (ability to withstand exercise) is a red flag for many chronic health conditions. These can range from COPD to heart failure.

Even if you're breathing normally with everyday activities, let your healthcare provider know if you're experiencing labored breathing earlier than usual in your workouts.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What is the medical term for difficulty breathing?

    There are many different terms, each of which describes a specific characteristic of a breathing problem. This includes dyspnea (shortness of breath), tachypnea (rapid, shallow breathing), hyperpnea (rapid, deep breathing), and apnea (abnormal gaps in breathing).

  • What are accessory muscles used for breathing?

    Accessory muscles are muscles outside of the diaphragm or intercostal muscles that assist with breathing when the breathing is labored or impaired.

    These include muscles called the scalene muscles, sternocleidomastoid, pectoralis major, pectoralis minor, and trapezius, among others.

  • When is labored breathing the sign of an emergency?

    Breathing difficulty is almost always considered a medical emergency. An exception is feeling winded from strenuous exercise. But, beyond that, labored breathing is never considered "normal."

    Even if it resolves, see a healthcare provider and have it checked out, especially if it occurred for no known reason.

6 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Tulaimat A, Trick W. DiapHRaGM: A mnemonic to describe the work of breathing in patients with respiratory failurePLoS One. 2017;12(7):e0179641. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0179641

  2. Berliner D, Schneider N, Welte T, Bauersachs J. The differential diagnosis of dyspnea. Dtsch Arztebl Int. 2016 Dec;113(49):834–45. doi:10.3238/arztebl.2016.0834

  3. Saguil A, Fargo M. Acute respiratory distress syndrome: diagnosis and managementAm Fam Physician. 2020;101(12):730-738.

  4. Johnson JD, Theurer WM. A stepwise approach to the interpretation of pulmonary function testsAm Fam Physician. 2014;89(5):359-66.

  5. Ferry OR, Huang YC, Masel PJ, et al. Diagnostic approach to chronic dyspnoea in adults. J Thorac Dis. 2019 Oct;11(Suppl 17):S2117–28. doi:10.21037/jtd.2019.10.53

  6. MedlinePlus. Breathing difficulties - first aid.

By Helen Massy
Helen Massy, BSc, is a freelance medical and health writer with over a decade of experience working in the UK National Health Service as a physiotherapist and clinical specialist for respiratory disease.