Apnea -Breathing - slowed or stopped

Apnea means absence of spontaneous breathing from any cause. Apnea can be intermittent and temporary, as occurs with obstructive sleep apnea, or prolonged. Prolonged apnea is also called respiratory arrest.

Alternative Names:
Respiration slowed or stopped; Not breathing; Respiratory arrest; Apnea

Prolonged apnea (respiratory arrest) is a life-threatening disorder that requires immediate medical attention and first aid.

Any episode of apnea, even a temporary one, in which a person turns blue, has a seizure, becomes limp, or remains drowsy or unconscious, requires prompt medical attention.

Apnea can occur for many different reasons. The most common causes of apnea in infants and small children are generally quite different from the most common causes in adults.

In infants and children, the most common cause of cardiac arrest (lack of an effective heartbeat) is a preceding respiratory arrest. In adults, the opposite usually occurs: cardiac arrest leads to respiratory arrest.

Common Causes:

Common causes of apnea in infants and young children include:


  • prematurity  
  • bronchiolitis or pneumonia  
  • foreign object aspiration or choking  
  • breath-holding spells  
  • seizures  
  • meningitis or encephalitis  
  • gastroesophageal reflux  
  • bronchospasm (asthma)

Common causes of apnea in adults include:


  • obstructive sleep apnea  
  • choking  
  • drug overdose, especially drugs such as alcohol, narcotic analgesics, barbiturates, anesthetics, and other depressants (see drug abuse first aid)  
  • cardiac arrest

Other causes of apnea include:


  • near-drowning  
  • head or brain stem injury  
  • cardiac (arrhythmias)  
  • metabolic disorders  
  • nervous system disorders

Home Care:
If a person has stopped breathing, emergency measures should be taken, and call for emergency help! Also see the information on CPR.

Call your health care provider if:

If there is any interruption in spontaneous breathing, this is an emergency! Call 911 (or your local emergency number) and begin CPR if breathing has stopped.

What to expect at your health care provider’s office:
In an emergency room or by an ambulance EMT (emergency medical technician), CPR or other emergency measures will be provided.

Once the patient is in a stable state, the medical history will be obtained and a physical examination performed.

Medical history questions documenting absent breathing in detail may include:


  • time pattern
    • Has this ever happened before?      
    • How long did the event last?      
    • Has the person had repeated, brief episodes of apnea?      
    • Did the episode end with a sudden deep snorting breath?


  • recent heath history

    • Has there been any recent history of an accident or injury?      
    • Has the person been ill recently?


  • other

    • Did the episode occur while awake or asleep?      
    • Had there been any breathing difficulty before the breathing stopped?      
    • What other symptoms are also present?      
    • What medication does the person take?      
    • Does the person use street drugs?

A general physical examination will be performed, including listening for heart sounds and breath sounds. The heart and lungs will be monitored. Diagnostic tests will be determined by the results of history and physical examination data.

Diagnostic tests that may be performed are:


  • chest X-ray  
  • ECG  
  • arterial blood gas

After seeing your health care provider:
You may want to add a diagnosis related to apnea to your personal medical record.


CPR Definition:

CPR is an emergency lifesaving procedure that is performed when a person’s own breathing or heartbeat have stopped, such as in cases of electric shock or drowning. CPR is a combination of rescue breathing, which provides oxygen to the victim’s lungs, and chest compressions, which keep oxygenated blood circulating until an effective heartbeat and breathing can be restored.

Permanent brain damage or death can occur within minutes if blood flow ceases. Therefore, it is critical that blood flow and breathing be continued until trained medical help arrives.

CPR techniques vary slightly depending on the age or size of the victim. See information on:


  • CPR for child age 1-8 years

  • CPR for infant under 1 year

  • CPR for person over 8 years

    Alternative Names:
    Cardiopulmonary resuscitation

  • Johns Hopkins patient information

    Last revised:

    Diseases and Conditions Center

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    All ArmMed Media material is provided for information only and is neither advice nor a substitute for proper medical care. Consult a qualified healthcare professional who understands your particular history for individual concerns.