First Aid Management for Respiratory Distress

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Respiratory arrest is the medical term for the mildest form of respiratory compromise wherein there are breathing difficulties and psychological experiences.

Respiratory distress
A common form of respiratory distress is choking / obstructed airways.

Respiratory arrest is the medical term for the mildest form of respiratory compromise. It is characterized by breathing difficulties and psychological experiences associated with such difficulty, even though there is no physiological basis for experiencing respiratory distress. Respiratory distress may easily turn into a medical emergency when the levels of carbon dioxide in the body increase causing symptoms of respiratory arrest. Respiratory arrest is a condition where the lungs stop contracting efficiently resulting to the cessation of breathing, thus oxygen is not delivered to the rest of the body.

In some cases, symptoms for respiratory distress are apparent. Clinically, it may apparent that the patient is unable to ventilate and/ or oxygenate. Respiratory distress is often associated with physical illnesses including acute respiratory distress syndrome and infant respiratory distress syndrome. Respiratory distress is the most common breathing emergency.

Causes of Respiratory Distress

There are many different causes of respiratory distress. Some of the common causes include:

  • Airway obstruction
  • Pneumothorax, whether open or closed
  • Tension pneumothorax
  • Choking
  • Electrocution
  • Pulmonary contusions
  • Flail chest
  • Asthma
  • Diaphragmatic hernia
  • Allergic reactions
  • Emotional distress
  • Drowning

Signs and Symptoms of Respiratory Distress

People experiencing respiratory distress often show evident signs that their body is not getting adequate oxygen. If an individual shows the following signs and symptoms, it may denote an individual unable to ventilate and/ or oxygenate. The following are signs and symptoms an individual should watch out for:

  • Increased breathing rate signifying an individual is having breathing troubles or not getting adequate oxygen
  • Cyanosis (bluish) around the mouth, inside of the lips, or on the fingernails, which may also appear pale or gray at times
  • Grunting sound upon exhalation
  • Nasal flaring indicating laboured breathing
  • Wheezing sounds that denotes tighter air passages
  • Chest retractions which appears to sink in below the neck and/ or under the breastbone for every respiration
  • Increased sweating on the head
  • Cool, clammy skin

First Aid Management for Respiratory Distress

It is necessary to learn the signs and symptoms for respiratory distress to learn how to aptly act in situations such as these. First aid can be applied in cases wherein an individual is experiencing respiratory distress. The following steps are generally recommended when an individual is experiencing respiratory distress:

  • Call for emergency medical assistance immediately.
  • Check for the casualty’s pulse, airway and breathing.
    • To check for pulse, place two fingers on the groove of the neck.
    • To check for any airway obstruction, place two fingers on the forehead and two fingers on the chin and slightly tilt the head.
    • To check for breathing, place own cheek in between the nose and mouth of the casualty and feel for breathing on the cheek. Watch for rise and fall of the chest. Do this for 5-10 seconds.
    • If there is no breathing, give mouth-to-mouth breathing.
      • With the airway open, pinch the nostrils and seal the victim’s mouth with own mouth. Give two rescue breaths.
      • Perform CPR if necessary.
      • Do not leave the victims of respiratory distress alone until professional help arrives.

Disclaimer: This article does not provide medical advice or treatment. The information given should not be used for self-diagnosis. Seek medical attention when necessary. Understanding symptoms that are commonly present in medical situations may help when taking first aid training. To learn more about to how to manage respiratory distress, enrol in First Aid Courses with credible training providers.


Respiratory Arrest. (2013). Ambulance Technician Study. Retrieved on October 14, 2013, from

Respiratory Distress. (2013). Retrieved on October 14, 2013, from

Signs of Respiratory Distress. (ND). The Ohio State University: Wexner Medical Center. Retrieved on October 14, 2013, from

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