Breathing problems: Causes, tests and treatments
Breathing problems affecting the lungs and respiratory system may be due to short-term infections, or long-term conditions, such as allergies, asthma or COPD.
Once the cause of breathing problems has been diagnosed, medication may be prescribed, as well as advice on lifestyle changes and avoiding triggers known to make breathing problems worse.
What causes breathing problems?
There are many causes of breathing problems. Some people have difficulty breathing when they get a cold. Others have trouble breathing because of occasional bouts of acute sinusitis. Sinusitis can make it difficult to breathe for a week or two until the inflammation subsides and the congested sinuses begin to drain.
Many breathing problems are chronic or long-term. These common breathing problems include chronic sinusitis, COPD, allergies and asthma. These problems can cause a host of symptoms such as nasal congestion, runny nose, itchy or watery eyes, chest congestion, coughing, wheezing, laboured breathing and shallow breathing.
The nasal passage is a pathway for viruses and allergens to enter your lungs. So the nose and sinuses are often associated with lung disorders. In addition, a common trigger for asthma symptoms is allergies.
Up to 1 in 5 people in the UK experience hayfever during their lives. Around 1 in 12 adults and 1 in 11 children have asthma.
Millions more people have breathing problems because of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) which includes emphysema and chronic bronchitis. Breathing problems may also stem from other serious problems such as lung cancer, tuberculosis, pneumonia and lung disease related to HIV/AIDS. Breathing problems may also be caused by heart failure and the side effects of some medications.
Which tests are used to diagnose breathing problems?
Doctors diagnose breathing problems by performing a physical examination, taking a patient history and family health history, and using different tests. For instance, pulmonary function tests, also known as lung function tests, are frequently used to assess lung function in people with asthma. These tests include spirometry and a test known as the methacholine challenge.
Spirometry is a simple breathing test. It measures how much air you can blow out of your lungs and how fast you can blow it. This breathing test is used to determine the amount of airway obstruction and is commonly used to help diagnose COPD. A methacholine challenge test may be performed to help establish a diagnosis of asthma. Your doctor will know which test is best for your situation.
In some cases, your doctor may take an X-ray to see the structures inside your chest, including your heart, lungs and bones. A chest X-ray is a good test to diagnose pneumonia. However, it cannot identify most breathing problems by itself. For some people with breathing problems, a CT scan of the chest is needed. This scan looks for any problems in the lungs. A CT scan uses X-rays and a computer to create detailed images.
If you suffer with chronic sinusitis, your doctor may order a special sinus CT scan. This scan will be used to evaluate your sinuses. Once the problem is diagnosed, your doctor may prescribe effective treatment to help resolve the breathing difficulty.