Question Of The Day #84

question of the day
475.3 xray abdomen series normal chest
Which of the following is the most appropriate next step in management for this patient’s condition?

Shortness of breath, also known as dyspnea, is a common reason for patients to visit the Emergency Department.  Dyspnea is often caused by a pulmonary or cardiovascular condition, but it is important to remember that dyspnea can be due to endocrine conditions, toxicologic conditions, neurologic conditions, hematologic conditions, musculoskeletal conditions, and psychiatric conditions. 

The initial approach to all patients with shortness of breath involves the primary survey, or “ABCs” (Airway, Breathing, Circulation).  This first involves checking the patient for a patent airway.  A simple method to assess the airway is to ask the patient to speak and listen for the voice.  A muffled voice, the presence of stridor, hematemesis, or a lethargic patient are clues that a patent airway may not be present.  Problems with the airway, such as an obstructing foreign body, inflammation (i.e., epiglottitis, anaphylactic shock), or vocal cord dysfunction can certainly cause shortness of breath.  Endotracheal intubation may need to be performed before moving forward.  Breathing is assessed by evaluating the function of the lungs.  Steps include looking at how the patient is breathing (fast or slow), measurement of an SpO2 level, and auscultation of both lungs for wheezing, crackles, rhonchi, or distant or absent sounds.  A low oxygen level should be immediately addressed with supplemental oxygen before moving forward.  The patient’s breathing rate and lung sounds can be very helpful in discovering the diagnosis and guiding treatment.  Lastly, circulation should be assessed.  Check the heart rate, blood pressure, peripheral pulses, skin color and temperature, and evaluate for any sites of hemorrhage.  The presence of hypotension or tachycardia should be addressed appropriately based on the presumed cause.  After the primary assessment (“ABCs”) and initial treatment actions, a more detailed history and physical exam should be conducted. 

Pertinent causes of shortness of breath for the emergency practitioner to know are outlined in the chart below. 



Select Causes of Shortness of Breath (Dyspnea)



Tension pneumothorax, pneumonia, empyema, pleural effusion, pulmonary edema, asthma, COPD



Acute coronary syndrome (i.e., STEMI), pulmonary embolism, cardiac tamponade, Decompensated Congestive Heart Failure (acute pulmonary edema)



Diabetic ketoacidosis (Kussmaul breathing)



Salicylate overdose, or any ingestion that causes a severe metabolic acidosis



Intracranial hemorrhage, Stroke, Spinal cord injury, Guillain-Barre syndrome, Myasthenia Gravis crisis (myasthenic crisis)



Severe anemia (i.e., GI bleeding, trauma, miscarriage, post-partum hemorrhage, ruptured ectopic pregnancy)



Rib fracture, flail chest



Anxiety, Panic attack

Airway Problem

Foreign body, epiglottitis, anaphylactic shock (laryngeal swelling), expanding neck hematoma


This patient arrives to the Emergency Department with shortness of breath and generalized weakness or 3 days.  On physical exam, there is tachycardia, tachypnea, normal oxygen saturation, and a markedly elevated glucose.  The Chest X-ray provided is normal; there are no lung infiltrates or pleural effusions. 

This patient has diabetic ketoacidosis (DKA).  DKA is a serious condition of insulin deficiency characterized by hyperglycemia, metabolic acidosis, and ketosis.  Presenting symptoms include weakness, increased thirst (polydipsia), increased hunger (polyphagia), increased urination (polyuria), abdominal pain, or vomiting.  Shortness of breath can also be seen in DKA as the metabolic ketoacidosis triggers an increased respiratory rate to drive more exhaled carbon dioxide out of the body.  This deep rapid breathing seen in severe DKA is known as Kussmaul breathing.  The treatment of DKA involves IV fluids for hydration, insulin infusion, and close monitoring for electrolyte derangements (potassium abnormalities are common).  DKA patients are severely dehydrated due to osmotic diuresis from their hyperglycemic state.  For this reason, IV fluid resuscitation is the first step to DKA management.  Either normal saline or lactated ringers (Choice B) can be used, although large volumes of normal saline can worsen the acidotic state by causing a hyperchloremic metabolic acidosis.  Intravenous fluids should be started with a 20-30cc/kg bolus.  IV insulin infusion (Choice A) should never be started without a potassium level, and no potassium level is provided in the question stem.  Insulin lowers potassium, and administration of insulin without a potassium level can result in hypokalemia, arrythmia, and death.  Endotracheal intubation (Choice D) should be avoided in DKA whenever possible as the patient’s respiratory status serves as a compensation for the metabolic acidosis.  This patient is tachypneic and mildly confused, but he is not somnolent and does not require immediate intubation.  Intubated DKA patients need carefully monitored ventilator settings in combination with blood gas measurements to avoid worsening acidosis and cardiac arrest.  Nebulized beta-2 agonist (i.e., albuterol, salbutamol) is helpful in asthma, however this patient has DKA and not an asthma exacerbation.  IV lactated ringers solution (Choice B) is the best next step.


Cite this article as: Joseph Ciano, USA, "Question Of The Day #84," in International Emergency Medicine Education Project, April 15, 2022,, date accessed: September 21, 2023

A comprehensive chapter from Toh Hong Chuen

Hyperglycemia chapter written by Toh Hong Chuen from Singapore is just uploaded to the Website!

61 - Diabetic Foot - Subcutaneous air

A 58-year-old lady presented with right foot pain for 3 days, associated with high fever, lethargy, polyuria, and polydipsia. At triage, air hunger was noted. Her vital signs were: blood pressure 82 / 46 mmHg, heart rate 131/min, respiratory rate 28/min, Temperature 38.7 and SpO2 98%. She was brought to the resuscitation room for further management.

Clinically, she was dehydrated and confused with GCS 14. Her neck was supple, and lungs were clear. Crepitus was noted on the dorsum of the right foot. Point of care blood tests showed: capillary glucose 40 mmol/L, capillary ketone 7.2 mmol/L, pH 7.22, bicarbonate 8 mmol/L, pCO2 20 mmHg, sodium 130 mmol/L, chloride 95 mmol/L, potassium 5.5 mmol/L and lactate 6.9 mmol/L.

A diagnosis of septic shock secondary to gas gangrene complicated by diabetic ketoacidosis was made. She was aggressively resuscitated with fluid and started on I.V. insulin infusion. Potassium replacement was withheld as potassium was elevated. Urinary catheterization was performed for strict input-output monitoring. Broad-spectrum antibiotics and intramuscular tetanus toxoid were given. X-ray of right foot confirmed subcutaneous air.

The patient was sent directly to the theatre and underwent extensive debridement for the gas gangrene. She had an uneventful recovery and was discharged 1 week later.

by Toh Hong Chuen from Singapore.