Breathing that stops from any cause is called apnea. Slowed breathing is called bradypnea. Labored or difficult breathing is known as dyspnea.
Apnea can come and go and be temporary. This can occur with obstructive sleep apnea, for example.
Prolonged apnea means a person has stopped breathing. If the heart is still active, the condition is known as respiratory arrest. This is a life-threatening event that requires immediate medical attention and first aid.
Prolonged apnea with no heart activity in a person who is not responsive is called cardiac (or cardiopulmonary) arrest. In infants and children, the most common cause of cardiac arrest is respiratory arrest. In adults, the opposite usually occurs, cardiac arrest leads to respiratory arrest.
Breathing difficulty can occur for many different reasons. The most common causes of apnea in infants and small children are usually different from the most common causes in adults.
Common causes of breathing difficulties in infants and young children include:
Common causes of breathing trouble (dyspnea) in adults include:
Other causes of apnea include:
Seek immediate medical attention or call your local emergency number (such as 911) if a person with any type of breathing problem:
If a person has stopped breathing, call for emergency help and perform CPR (if you know how). When in a public place, look for an Automated External Defibrillator (AED) and follow the directions.
CPR or other emergency measures will be done in an emergency room or by an ambulance emergency medical technician (EMT) or paramedic.
Once the person is stable, the health care provider will do a physical exam, which includes listening to heart sounds and breath sounds.
Questions will be asked about the person's medical history and symptoms, including:
Recent health history
Diagnostic tests that may be done include:
Reviewed By: Jacob L. Heller, MD, MHA, Emergency Medicine, Virginia Mason Medical Center, Seattle, WA. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Isla Ogilvie, PhD, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.