First Aid for Breathing Emergencies and Hypoxia

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Continuous breathing is vital for life. When a person’s breathing is affected through injury or illness, their life can be in immediate danger. As a first aider, you have to be able to recognize a breathing emergency very quickly and know what first aid to give – the casualty’s life may depend on it.


Breathing Emergency – Hypoxia

A breathing emergency causes a lack of oxygen in the blood. This condition, known as hypoxia, can damage vital tissues and eventually cause death if not corrected. The causes of hypoxia are usually a result of lack of oxygen, blocked airway, ineffective breathing and abnormal heart function:

  1. Lack of oxygen – for example:
  • An environment where the oxygen level is low
  • The oxygen is displaced by other gasses, such as carbon monoxide
  • The oxygen in a small space is used up
  1. Blocked airway – for example:
  • The casualty chokes on a foreign object, such as food
  • The casualty is face up while unconscious and the tongue is blocking the airway
  • The casualty’s airway is swollen from an infection
  1. Ineffective Breathing – for example:
  • Severe chest injury
  • Smoke inhalation
  • Drug overdose
  • Spinal cord injury
  1. Abnormal heart function – for example:
  • An illness such as pneumonia or heart failure
  • An injury to the head, chest or spine.
  • A drug overdose or poisoning

Breathing Emergencies
Breathing Emergencies

Signs of Effective Breathing

The most important signs a first aider uses to assess breathing are rate, rhythm and depth.

Breathing rate is the number of breaths (inhalations and exhalations) in one minute. The normal breathing rate varies between infants, children and adults. A breathing rate that is too slow or too fast is a sign of a breathing emergency. The normal breathing rates per minute are 10 to 20 for adults, 20 to 30 for children and 30 to 50 for infants.

Breathing rhythm refers to the interval between breaths. In normal breathing, the intervals are even and breathing is effortless – this is regular breathing. In irregular breathing, the breathing between intervals is uneven. This usually indicates a respiratory problem or distress.

Breathing depth refers to the amount of air moved in and out of the lungs with each breath. Learn to recognize the difference between normal breathing depth and shallow breathing.

Signs of Ineffective Breathing

When a person is breathing normally, breathing is effective. This means the body is getting the oxygen it needs to function. As a person’s breathing becomes more and more impaired, there is a point where the body needs more oxygen than it is getting. At this point, breathing becomes ineffective. As a first aider, you need to be able to tell the difference between breathing that is “just a little” ineffective, where the causality’s life is not in immediate danger, and breathing that is very ineffective, where the casualty’s life is in immediate danger.


Related Video on Breathing – Hypoxia

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