Shortness of breath is the feeling that you cannot get enough air into your lungs because your breathing passages are narrowed or blocked in some way. Shortness of breath is also called dyspnea and it may occur when you exert yourself, such as when walking up a flight of stairs or going for a run. A person’s shortness of breath is often caused by an asthma attack, heart problems, or lung disease. Shortness of breath can also be caused by anxiety and stress. It is a symptom that should not be ignored because it could indicate serious medical conditions. Shortness of breath can cause someone to feel lightheaded and dizzy; this sensation may lead to fainting or even death if left untreated for too long.
Shortness of breath can become uncomfortable, causing symptoms such as tightness in your chest, suffocation, chest pain, nausea or vomiting, air hunger or hungry for air, feeling out of breath, unable to take deep breaths or breathe deeply. It can be either acute (sudden dyspnea) or chronic (long-lasting dyspnea). Acute dyspnea can develop in a matter of minutes or hours. It can occur in conjunction with other symptoms such as a fever, rash, or cough. When you have chronic dyspnea, simple things like going from room to room or standing up might make you feel out of breath. (Nazario 2020)
Causes of Shortness of Breath
There are many possible causes of shortness of breath, including:
- Respiratory illnesses such as bronchitis, pneumonia, and asthma
- Heart problems such as congestive heart failure and angina
- Pulmonary embolism
- Trauma to the chest or airway
- Carbon monoxide poisoning
- Emotional distress, panic attack or anxiety
- Sudden blood loss
- Collapsed lung or broken ribs
More serious ailments like lung cancer or tuberculosis can cause shortness of breath. (American Lung Association)
Diagnosis & Treatment of Shortness of Breath
Your doctor will begin by obtaining a thorough medical history and inquiring about the nature of your shortness of breath, including when it worsens, and when it improves, and if you are experiencing any other symptoms. Your doctor may prescribe more tests after performing a physical examination and listening to your heart and lungs.
Blood tests, imaging tests such as a chest X-ray or CT scan, lung function tests, and an echocardiogram are common examples of diagnostic tools. Treatment for shortness of breath is determined by the underlying cause and the length of symptoms. After that has been determined, you and your doctor can collaborate to develop a treatment plan. If you have shortness of breath due to obesity or poor health, you will need to adopt lifestyle changes to control it. Maintaining a balanced diet and exercising on a regular basis can help alleviate symptoms – be sure to ok this with your doctor first.
Smoking can exacerbate the symptoms of any underlying lung condition, so it’s crucial to quit and avoid secondhand smoke. Similarly, avoiding pollution or any other known allergy triggers can help to alleviate symptoms. (American Lung Association)
If you are experiencing shortness of breath, it is important to see a doctor to determine the cause and receive appropriate treatment. Early diagnosis and treatment can often prevent more serious health problems from developing. If you experience shortness of breath and feel faint or lose consciousness, prompt emergency care is necessary. Dial 911 and get help right away; it can save a life.
Nazario, Brunilda. “Dyspnea (Shortness of Breath): Symptoms, Causes, and Treatment.” WebMD, WebMD, 3 Apr. 2020, www.webmd.com/lung/shortness-breath-dyspnea#1-1.
“Diagnosing and Treating Shortness of Breath.” American Lung Association, www.lung.org/lung-health-diseases/warning-signs-of-lung-disease/shortness-of-breath/diagnosing-treating.