Shortness of breath can be terrifying at some times because you may feel like you are unable to draw air into your lungs. The medical term for this condition is known as dyspnea. It can occur in a healthy person due to heavy exercise, obesity, higher altitude, or extreme temperatures. Apart from these factors, if you develop shortness of breath, it may signify a medical condition. These medical conditions usually affect your respiratory tract and make it difficult to breathe even without physical activity. In severe cases where the patient cannot breathe on their own, emergency medical treatment is necessary to restore their breathing pattern.
There are many causes of dyspnea. It can be acute or chronic. Acute cases last from a few hours to a few days, while chronic cases can take months to recover. Most of the medical conditions that lead to shortness of breath are linked with your lungs or heart. Among respiratory diseases, some common examples include asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), pneumonia, coronavirus disease, pulmonary embolism, pulmonary edema, pneumothorax, airway obstruction, pleurisy, interstitial lung disease, tuberculosis, and lung cancer.
Heart diseases can also lead to a shortage of blood supply and oxygen to the lungs, resulting in shortness of breath. Common examples include heart attack, heart failure, arrhythmia, cardiomyopathy, and pericarditis. Other factors that may cause shortness of breath include anemia, panic attack, anxiety disorder, epiglottitis, myasthenia gravis, choking, allergic reaction, carbon monoxide poisoning, and a few other rare diseases.
One of the risk factors for shortness of breath is age. Young children or older people can develop shortness of breath because of various causes. This is because their immune systems are weaker compared to adults. People which chronic lung diseases such as asthma or COPD are also at high risk because any triggering factor such as dust, pollen, etc., can trigger their condition. Those living or working in areas with smog or excessive air pollution may also develop shortness of breath. Smoking is another factor. The lungs of smokers get weakened over time, and they have an increased risk of developing diseases like emphysema or lung cancer. Due to this reason, they may develop shortness of breath by doing even a little strenuous work.
Shortness of breath is one of the most common reasons for visiting the medical emergency department. It can affect anyone, but children and adults over the age of 50 or 60 may develop serious breathing issues.
Shortness of breath is a symptom of many diseases related to the lungs or heart. The symptoms can occur with varying intensity, including tightness in your chest, difficulty drawing in air, feeling as if you are drowning or being suffocated, putting in more effort to get work done, and irregular breathing rate. People at risk of this condition can develop shortness of breath even after a short-distance walk. This can also cause weakness, lethargy, and dizziness due to reduced oxygen supply to your lungs.
The diagnostic procedure begins with obtaining a detailed history of the symptoms and other factors such as allergies, smoking, preexisting medical conditions, etc. This is followed by a physical examination where your doctor will notice your breathing rate, breathing pattern, possible airway obstruction, breathing sounds, etc. A stethoscope is used to determine an irregularity in heart or lungs sounds. Further diagnostic tests will be required to make a conformational diagnosis if a particular disease is suspected. These may include chest x-ray, pulse oximetry, electrocardiography (EKG), spirometry, plethysmography, and necessary blood tests.
Shortness of breath or dyspnea is a symptom of multiple diseases. The original cause must be identified and differentiated from other medical conditions based on symptoms, history, physical examination, and appropriate diagnostic tests.
Treatment of shortness of breath is based on its cause and severity. If you are unable to breathe on your own or develop other symptoms such as dizziness, nausea/vomiting, loss of conscience, etc., immediate medical help will be required. The first step will secure your airway, breathing, and circulation. Oxygen supply is given to improve oxygen saturation level. Once your vitals have been stabilized, your doctor will follow suitable medications or other treatment options to cure the original cause. If you are old, obese, or have any other chronic disease, your doctor will also guide you about some lifestyle changes to reduce the risk of this condition.
Medications such as bronchodilators or corticosteroids are prescribed in specific dosages to improve your breathing. Other medications will depend on the cause of your condition. For example, suitable antibiotics will be prescribed to kill the offending pathogen if you have a bacterial infection.
The prognosis of dyspnea depends on the cause and severity of your condition. Some chronic diseases like asthma and COPD can last from months to years. With prescribed medications, you can significantly reduce the chance of developing shortness of breath.
It is difficult to prevent shortness of breath since it is not predictable and can occur at any time. However, if you have a preexisting heart or lung disease, you will need to follow some guidelines given by your doctor to improve your life quality. Walk or exercise for 15 – 30 minutes a day. Avoid smoking, alcohol, and drug abuse. Always keep your medications at hand if you are traveling outside and avoid air-polluted areas to the best possible extent.
Our clinical experts continually monitor the health and medical content posted on CURA4U, and we update our blogs and articles when new information becomes available. Last reviewed by Dr.Saad Zia on May 29, 2023.
Learn About Shortness of Breath | American Lung Association
Dyspnea (Shortness of Breath) | CHEST Foundation (chestnet.org)