A disruption in your regular breathing patterns can be alarming. Feeling as though you can’t take a deep breath is known in the medical community as dyspnea. Other ways to describe this symptom are hunger for air, shortness of breath, and chest tightening. Dyspnea is a symptom of many different health conditions, and it may come on rapidly or develop over time.
All cases of dyspnea warrant a visit to the doctor to diagnose the underlying cause and determine the proper treatment. Severe dyspnea that occurs rapidly and affects your overall functioning requires immediate medical attention.
Dyspnea is a symptom of a variety of conditions. Approximately 85 percent of cases of dyspnea are related to:
- congestive heart failure
- myocardial ischemia, or reduced blood flow to the heart that’s usually due to blockage that can lead to a heart attack
- chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)
- interstitial lung disease
- psychogenic disorders, such as anxiety
Many of the conditions associated with dyspnea relate to the heart and lungs. This is because these organs are responsible for circulating oxygen and taking away carbon dioxide throughout your body. Heart and lung conditions can alter these processes, leading to a shortness of breath.
There are other heart and lung conditions associated with dyspnea aside from the most common ones listed above.
Heart conditions include:
- pulmonary edema (from congestive heart failure)
- acute valvular disease
- heart attack
- cardiac tamponade
- low blood pressure
Lung conditions include:
- lung cancer
- pulmonary hypertension
- sleep apnea
- pulmonary embolism
- collapsed lung
- acute respiratory distress syndrome
- pleural effusion
- non-cardiogenic pulmonary edema
Dyspnea is not only related to the heart and lungs. Other conditions and factors can lead to the symptom, such as:
- carbon monoxide exposure
- high altitude
- very low or high temperatures
- vigorous exercise
Just as dyspnea can occur for different reasons, the onset of the symptom can differ.
You may suddenly experience dyspnea. This requires immediate medical attention. Conditions that can cause a quick onset of dyspnea include asthma, anxiety, or a heart attack.
Conversely, you may have chronic dyspnea. This is when shortness of breath lasts beyond a month. You may experience long-term dyspnea because of COPD, obesity, or another condition.
You may have several accompanying symptoms with dyspnea. These additional symptoms can help you and your doctor diagnose its underlying cause. If you experience a cough, the dyspnea may be caused by a condition in your lungs. If you feel the symptom as chest pains, the doctor may test for heart conditions. Your doctor may discover symptoms outside of the heart and lungs that cause the dyspnea as well.
Symptoms that occur alongside dyspnea include:
- heart palpitations
- weight loss
- crackling in the lungs
- night sweats
- swollen feet and ankles
- labored breathing when lying flat
- high fever
- long-term shortness of breath that becomes worse
Be sure to make a list of any symptoms you experience with dyspnea so you can share them with your doctor.
You should get medical attention immediately if you experience:
- a sudden shortness of breath that interferes with your ability to function
- loss of consciousness
- chest pain
Dyspnea is a symptom that can cover a range of health conditions. Therefore, your doctor’s appointment may range in scope. Generally, your doctor will:
Take a medical history
This will include discussing information such as:
- your current state of health and your symptoms
- chronic and prior medical conditions and surgeries
- medications you use
- your smoking habits
- your family history
- recent surgeries
- your working environment
Perform a physical examination
This will include:
- taking your vital signs
- recording your current weight
- noting your appearance
- measuring your peak flow and pulse oximetry
- examining your lungs, neck veins, and heart
The physical examination may include other measurements and observations based on your doctor’s findings.
Your doctor will conduct tests depending on your history and physical examination. Some baseline tests may include:
If the previous tests are inconclusive, you may need more extensive testing, including:
- comprehensive pulmonary function tests
- computed tomography
- ventilation/perfusion scanning
- stress tests
Dyspnea can usually be treated by identifying and treating the condition that is causing it. During the time it takes for your doctor to diagnose the condition, you may receive interventions like oxygen and ventilation assistance to relive the symptom.
Treatments for dyspnea may include:
- removing the airway blockage
- eliminating mucus
- reducing airway inflammation
- alleviating the body’s hunger for air
Your doctor may prescribe medications to relieve symptoms. These may include steroids for asthma, antibiotics for pneumonia, or another medication related to your underlying condition. You may also need supplemental oxygen. In some cases, surgical intervention may be necessary to alleviate dyspnea.
There are additional treatments for dyspnea that go beyond medical interventions. Your doctor may recommend that you try breathing exercises. These can strengthen your lung functioning as well as help you combat dyspnea when it arises in your daily life.
If you experience dyspnea chronically, you should discuss lifestyle modifications that may alleviate it. These changes may reduce the occurrence of dyspnea and include:
- losing weight
- treating medical conditions
- quitting smoking
- avoiding environmental triggers like allergens and toxic air
- staying in low-elevation areas (lower than 5,000 feet)
- monitoring any equipment or medications you may be using
Dyspnea is a symptom of an underlying medical condition or the result of another trigger. This symptom should be taken seriously and requires a visit to your doctor.
The outlook for dyspnea depends on the underlying condition that is causing it.