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What is a Breathing Disorder?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: Kristen Osborne
  • Last Modified Date: 13 September 2016
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A breathing disorder is a medical problem characterized by difficulty breathing. Breathing disorders can occur in patients of all ages and levels of fitness and they are very common. It is sometimes challenging to diagnose such disorders properly, but once diagnosed, treatment options are often available to the patient.

Breathing disorders may cause difficulty breathing all the time, but more commonly, people have periodic episodes of shortness of breath, wheezing, and other breathing problems. Many breathing disorders manifest during sleep and patients may not be aware of them unless someone has noticed that they have difficulty breathing, or stop breathing while sleeping. Other disorders may be related to exertion, or may occur when people are under stress. Identifying the common factors in episodes of bad breathing is important for diagnosis and treatment.

The lungs and bronchial passages are especially vulnerable to irritation and inflammation. Chronic inflammation can lead to breathing disorders, as can infections like pneumonia. Some people are born with genetic conditions that impact lung function, and other people acquire disorders as a result of environmental exposures like working in a factory environment with high levels of smoke and particulates.

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Breathing disorders can include conditions like sleep apnea, asthma, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder (COPD). If a doctor suspects that a patient has a breathing disorder, the patient may be asked to undergo lung function tests. These tests will measure lung capacity and other variables. Patients can also receive electrocardiograms and other diagnostic tests to examine the heart and other organs, as breathing disorders can be the results of a multisystem disorder.

Treatments for breathing disorders vary. Some can be managed with medication. Breathing exercises and breathing devices intended to strengthen the lungs may be beneficial. In the case of episodes of hyperventilation and other disorders triggered by stress, identifying and addressing the stress may resolve the breathing disorder. Changes to diet and exercise regimens can also be used in the management and treatment of breathing disorders.

With treatment, some people improve entirely. Childhood asthma, for example, often resolves in adulthood, allowing people to live healthy, active lives. In other cases, a breathing disorder is chronic and will not resolve, although it can be managed. Reducing the impact of a breathing disorder can allow people to live relatively normal lives while they are in treatment and new treatments are constantly in development, opening up the possibility that a patient's breathing may be treatable in the future.

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