Shortness of breath

Medical quality assurance by Dr. Albrecht Nonnenmacher, MD at November 24, 2015
StartSymptomsShortness of breath

If you've ever experienced shortness of breath, it can be rather unsettling. There's that instant when it's suddenly difficult to fill your lungs and you feel like you can't get enough air. Shortness of breath can happen on occasion or it can be a chronic problem that suggests there is an underlying problem. Regardless of what type of shortness of breath you have experienced, it's important to get to the root of your condition in order to have a better understanding of it so it can be properly addressed.


Definition & Facts

Shortness of breath is referred to as dyspnea by the medical community. It is defined as a moment when you experience a sensation of being smothered or a tightness in your chest that constricts the flow of air. You simply can't breathe freely.

It can be truly terrifying, especially if the episode does not pass within a short period of time. When you experience a bout of shortness of breath, you have to take time away from what you were doing. Everything has to be put on hold as you are forced to sit down and wait it out.

In some cases, people suffer from shortness of breath on a daily basis. Otherwise, there may be flare-ups, those brief instances when it is a battle to breathe. No matter how often you experience shortness of breath, it is a troubling condition any time that it happens.


Shortness of breath can be caused by a variety of issues. One of the most common reasons that individuals experience shortness of breath is due to overexertion, especially when extreme fitness regimens are part of the daily routine. Harsh temperatures, whether they are extremely hot or extremely cold, can also bring on an episode of shortness of breath.

Underlying medical conditions can cause shortness of breath as well, such as bronchitis, pneumonia, asthma, allergies, low blood pressure, a heart attack, irregularities in heart rate, an inflamed heart, or an infection of the tissue surrounding the heart. Episodes can be brought on by an anxiety disorder or during a panic attack.

Injuries to the ribs, choking, and lung disease can also cause shortness of breath. Those who are obese often experience shortness of breath as well due to the pressure of excess weight on their lungs, the extra burden on their hearts, and poor health. Emphysema, COPD, and smoking often cause shortness of breath as well. Depending on the cause, shortness of breath may only be experienced for brief instances. However, it is often a chronic condition for those who have serious health problems at the source.

When to see a doctor

It is important to seek medical assistance and see a doctor if you experience a sudden attack of shortness of breath that is severe enough to hinder your ability to function. This especially holds true if your shortness of breath has no explanation. If an episode strikes and you were not involved in any type of activity or environment that could have triggered the event, you need to get to the bottom of it right away.

You could be experiencing a life-threatening condition in a medical emergency. If your shortness of breath causes you to faint, is accompanied by chest pain, or includes nausea, you could be a victim of a heart attack. A pulmonary embolism, a life-threatening condition, can also cause these symptoms. Other reasons to seek medical assistance include the inability to breathe when you are lying down, swelling or bloating, a wheezing noise, or if your lips turn blue.

You could be experiencing a serious lung or heart condition. If your shortness of breath is accompanied by a fever, you need to see a doctor. You could have severe pneumonia or bronchitis that requires monitoring and medication.

Treatment & Therapy

Treatment for shortness of breath will depend on your condition. It may begin with oxygen while medical staff determine why you are experiencing an episode of shortness of breath. Solutions can range from surgery to medication or respiratory therapy.

The first priority of your medical team will be to identify any life-threatening conditions that could be causing your problem in order to address the problem. Once your underlying condition is treated, your shortness of breath may go away. Otherwise, it may be a chronic problem that you will need to learn how to live with.

You will be required to adjust your lifestyle accordingly, whether you have to limit your activities or carry portable oxygen with you at all times. Your solution may be as simple as using an inhaler when you have an attack. Every case is unique and your doctor will help you to find answers.

Prevention & Prophylaxis

You can take charge of your health to avoid future bouts of shortness of breath or help you to manage your condition. If you smoke, you should definitely quit in order to have healthier, stronger lungs. You can also avoid any trigger factors that may bring on an attack, such as pollutants or allergens that irritate your lungs.

If you are overweight, consider going on a weight loss plan and including exercise in your daily routine in order to make your lungs stronger. You'll also relieve your heart and lungs of the burden of carrying excess weight. Talk with your doctor about medications that can help you to manage your condition if it is a chronic problem or attacks come on suddenly. You should also inquire about respiratory therapy which can provide you with the tools you need to cope with your condition.

Find out if portable oxygen can help you to live a more active lifestyle. If you have a lung or heart condition that has caused your shortness of breath, time and treatment may help you to overcome your condition. Shortness of breath is a troubling condition that can be controlled if you understand the cause and adjust your lifestyle accordingly. In some cases, you may not be able to do anything to stop the problem. You will have to learn to live with it, managing your condition with assistance from your doctor and medical team.