First Aid Tips for Treating Shortness of Breath

Shortness of breath, also called dyspnea, has many different causes, and the treatment of shortness of breath is specific for each cause. In many cases, the only way to treat shortness of breath is to call 911 or take the victim to a doctor or emergency department for evaluation. Besides figuring out what is causing the shortness of breath, healthcare providers will also be able to provide supplemental oxygen to help the victim breathe easier.

Exhausted sports woman
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Steps for Treating Shortness of Breath

There are, however, some first aid steps you can use to treat shortness of breath, at least until the ambulance arrives or you are able to get the victim to a hospital. For victims of shortness of breath, try these steps:

  1. Have the victim rest. The more energy you expend, the more oxygen you use and the more short of breath you feel. Think about a good workout at the gym. Exercise hard enough and you will feel short of breath. The cure? Take a break. Not sure if the victim is having trouble breathing? Take a look at these symptoms of shortness of breath.
  2. Let the victim sit, stand, or lie however is the most comfortable. Coaches sometimes tell players to hold their arms above their heads to maximize chest expansion. Paramedics use the "tripod position" of sitting on the edge of a chair or bed and leaning forward, propped up with hands or elbows on knees. Every person is different, however, so let the victim decide what position is most comfortable.
  3. Call 911. If resting in a position of comfort isn't doing the trick after two or three minutes, it's time to call 911. Use your best judgement. If you believe the victim is severely short of breath, call 911 immediately.
  4. Use oxygen. If the victim has oxygen available, this is what it's for. If the victim has chronic lung problems, they may have been told by their doctor that too much oxygen for too long might cause more problems. During episodes of shortness of breath, the victim should use his or her oxygen as directed by a doctor.
  5. Treat the cause of shortness of breath. There are many causes of shortness of breath and many of them are treatable. Asthma patients, for example, often have multiple tools and drugs available to fix sudden shortness of breath. Victims of lung infections might need to see a doctor for treatment. Heart attack victims may need an ambulance.


Shortness of breath has many causes and some of them are quite serious. In the worst case scenarios, shortness of breath is caused by a heart attack, sudden lung problem, or life-threatening poisoning—in which case calling 911 could truly mean the difference between life or death.

5 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. Berliner D, Schneider N, Welte T, Bauersachs J. The differential diagnosis of dyspnea. Dtsch Arztebl Int. 2016;113(49):834-845. doi: 10.3238/arztebl.2016.0834

  2. American Lung Association. How Can Oxygen Help Me?

  3. Sarkar M, Bhardwaz R, Madabhavi I, Modi M. Physical signs in patients with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. Lung India. 2019;36(1):38. doi: 10.4103/lungindia.lungindia_145_18

  4. Baker KM, DeSanto-Madeya S, Banzett RB. Routine dyspnea assessment and documentation: Nurses’ experience yields wide acceptanceBMC Nursing. 2017;16(1):3. doi:10.1186/s12912-016-0196-9

  5. NIH Medline. Breathing difficulties - first aid.

By Rod Brouhard, EMT-P
Rod Brouhard is an emergency medical technician paramedic (EMT-P), journalist, educator, and advocate for emergency medical service providers and patients.