What is respiratory distress syndrome? | Causes of shortness of breath

What is respiratory distress syndrome?

In about half of all premature babies before the 32nd week of pregnancy, the so-called Infant respiratory distress syndrome occurs. Clinically, the respiratory distress syndrome manifests itself clinically by increased work of breathing, which becomes visible by faster breathing and retraction of the ribs. The lack of oxygen and the insufficient breathing of the newborn is also manifested by a pale to greyish skin colour.

The disease is caused when a protein (the surfactant) has not yet been sufficiently produced by the lungs – in the case of the newborn, the lungs are therefore not yet fully developed, causing the pulmonary alveoli to collapse and insufficient oxygen exchange to take place in the lungs. To prevent the alveoli from collapsing, the newborn child has to work harder to breathe. The insufficiently functioning gas exchange in the lungs and the resulting reduced supply of oxygen to the newborn child can be controlled by carrying out a blood gas analysis.

As therapy, direct ventilation with the aid of a mask (CPAP) should be performed. If this is not sufficient to supply the newborn with sufficient oxygen, artificial surfactant can be administered. As a preventive measure, an attempt should be made to avoid premature births.

If it cannot be avoided, the maturing of the lungs can be supported by administering certain drugs before birth. In order to cure the shortness of breath, the primary disease must first be cured. In the case of tonsillitis, diphtheria or epigottitis, the patient must take antibiotics as soon as possible to reduce the inflammation, then the tonsils swell again, the inflammation disappears and the shortness of breath is relieved.

If the windpipe is constricted by the thyroid gland or by a stenosis, surgery is usually the only way to relieve the shortness of breath. In the case of lung carcinoma, the therapy usually looks very bad, as lung carcinomas are detected very late. In the case of pneumonia (inflammation of the lungs), it helps the patient to take antibiotics, because the bacteria are killed and the inflammation, which causes the shortness of breath, can thus be eliminated.

In the case of pulmonary fibrosis, usually only cortisone and a permanent oxygen therapy to relieve the shortness of breath help. Cystic fibrosis must be kept in check as much as possible by physiotherapy, inhalations and antibiotics to minimise shortness of breath and the permanent cough. If the shortness of breath is caused by the heart, i.e. due to increased pressure (pulmonary oedema) or due to a heart attack, the heart must be treated first, then the shortness of breath disappears on its own.


There is no single prophylaxis against shortness of breath. However, it is important not to expose yourself to the allergenic substances if you have an existing allergy, as this automatically leads to shortness of breath. Smoking should also be avoided, as smokers are much more likely to develop lung cancer or lung fibrosis than non-smokers.

In addition, it helps to train the respiratory muscles again and again and to do regular endurance sports in the fresh air, as this promotes the circulation of oxygen through the body and can thus counteract shortness of breath. In addition, you should pay attention to a reduced weight, because too much fat in the area of the chest and the abdomen strongly restricts breathing and can therefore lead to shortness of breath more easily, but also to heart attacks and thus indirectly to shortness of breath due to the increased fat values in the blood. If the shortness of breath (dyspnoea) is caused by a cold, teas are an effective household remedy.

Herbal teas (lavender, mint, balm) are well suited. (Chamomile) steam baths, simultaneous use of nasal showers or cough lotions and treatment with warm, moist compresses on the chest can also help to alleviate symptoms. If breathing is severely impaired, an attempt should be made to remain calm and to inhale and exhale in a controlled, long and slow manner.

Certain postures, such as the goalkeeper or coachman posture, can also help to improve breathing. If the shortness of breath does not improve, a doctor should be consulted or an emergency doctor should be called in.