Is there a way to distinguish between breathing difficulty from angina and from narcotic painkiller side effects?

Narcotic painkillers can cause trouble breathing as a side effect, yet angina as well can result in this scary symptom; is there a way to tell one type of labored breathing from the other?

“Narcotic side effects would make them drowsy or unconscious, and breathing would become dangerously slow or even stop, and the person may not even realize it,” says Dr. Sameer Sayeed, a cardiologist at ColumbiaDoctors of Somers, NY.

“Angina is usually reproducible with the breathing difficulty happening each time they do a certain amount of activity, walking, etc., and once it is severe would even occur at rest, and the person would be very uncomfortable and definitely would realize it.”

So if you’re on narcotic painkillers, and you feel fine all along, and suddenly develop difficulty breathing, chances are very high that this is NOT a side effect from the narcotic drugs.

It’s not necessarily angina, either, but you can pretty much rule out narcotic side effects if this is your only symptom, and especially if it came on during mild exertion that’s too light to justify the shortness of breath.

My mother had been on narcotic painkillers, and on and off complained of “labored breathing.”

We all thought it was from the narcotics because the inserts listed this symptom as a possible side effect (along with a huge host of other potential side effects).

It’s much more likely that all along this symptom had been caused by severe coronary artery blockage, because eventually she was diagnosed with very severely blocked arteries (after being diagnosed with unstable angina), and had to undergo coronary bypass surgery.

If you’re worried about your heart health, see a cardiologist and also have your coronary calcium score taken.

Dr. Sayeed performs echocardiograms and stress tests at the Midtown Manhattan and Westchester offices at Columbia Doctors. He is also trained in cardiac CT imaging.
Lorra Garrick has been covering medical, fitness and cybersecurity topics for many years, having written thousands of articles for print magazines and websites, including as a ghostwriter. She’s also a former ACE-certified personal trainer.  


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