Definition of dyspnea (shortness of breath)
Few sensations are as frightening as not being able to get enough air. Although shortness of breath — known medically as dyspnea — is likely to be experienced differently by different people, it’s often described as an intense tightening in the chest or feeling of suffocation. Depending on the cause, you may experience shortness of breath just once or have recurring episodes that could become constant.
Very strenuous exercise, extreme temperatures, massive obesity and high altitude all can cause shortness of breath in a healthy person. Outside of these examples, shortness of breath is likely a sign of a medical problem. If you have unexplained shortness of breath, especially if it comes on suddenly and is severe, see your doctor as soon as possible.
Causes of dyspnea (shortness of breath)
Most cases of shortness of breath are due to heart or lung conditions. Your heart and lungs are involved in transporting oxygen to your tissues and removing carbon dioxide, and problems with either of these processes affect your breathing.
- Carbon monoxide poisoning
- Cardiac tamponade
- Heart attack
- Low blood pressure (hypotension)
- Pulmonary embolism
- Upper airway obstruction
- Heart arrhythmias
- Heart failure
- Broken ribs
- Foreign object inhaled
- Generalized anxiety disorder
- Guillain-Barre syndrome
- Myasthenia gravis
In the case of chronic shortness of breath, the condition is most often due to:
- COPD — Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease
- Heart dysfunction
- Interstitial lung disease
A number of other health conditions also can make it hard to get enough air. These include:
- Lung cancer
- Pulmonary edema
- Pulmonary fibrosis
- Pulmonary hypertension
When to see a doctor
Seek emergency medical care
Call 911 or your local emergency number or have someone drive you to the emergency room if you experience severe shortness of breath that comes on suddenly and affects your ability to function. Seek emergency medical care if your shortness of breath is accompanied by chest pain, fainting or nausea — as these may be signs of a heart attack or pulmonary embolism.
Make a doctor’s appointment
Make an appointment with your doctor if your shortness of breath is accompanied by:
- Swelling in your feet and ankles
- Trouble breathing when you lie flat
- High fever, chills and cough
- Lips or fingertips turning blue
- Stridor — a high pitched noise that occurs with breathing
- Worsening of pre-existing shortness of breath
To help keep chronic shortness of breath from getting worse:
- Stop smoking. The benefits of quitting smoking are extraordinary. Once you’re tobacco-free, your risks of heart disease, lung disease and cancer begin to drop — even if you’ve been smoking for years.
- Avoid exposure to pollutants. As much as possible, avoid breathing allergens and environmental toxins.
- Lose weight if you are overweight.
- Take care of yourself. If you have an underlying medical condition, take care of it.
- Have an action plan. Discuss with your doctor what to do if your symptoms become worse.
- Avoid exertion at elevations higher than 5,000 feet (1,524 meters).
- If you rely on supplemental oxygen be sure your supply is adequate and the equipment works properly.