What causes shortness of breath on exertion? 52 possible conditions
Shortness of breath on exertion is a term used to describe difficulty breathing when engaged in a simple activity like walking up stairs or going to the mailbox. Read more
What is shortness of breath on exertion?
Shortness of breath on exertion is a term used to describe difficulty breathing when engaged in a simple activity like walking up stairs or going to the mailbox.
It’s also known as:
- breathlessness on exertion
- exertional dyspnea
- dyspnea on effort
- exertional breathlessness
- short of breath with activity
- dyspnea on exertion (DOE)
While each person experiences this symptom differently, it’s usually marked by feeling like you can’t catch your breath. Normal breathing is relatively slow and occurs without much thought. When you begin breathing faster and feel that the breath is shallower, that’s what shortness of breath feels like. You may switch from breathing through your nose to your mouth to try and get more air. When this happens without athletic exertion, it’s a concern.
Many people feel short of breath during strenuous activity if they are not accustomed to exercise. But if you have a sudden onset of difficulty breathing doing routine, day-to-day activities, it may be a medical emergency. Shortness of breath on exertion is a sign that your lungs are not getting enough oxygen in or not getting enough carbon dioxide out. It can be a warning sign of something serious.
Causes of shortness of breath on exertion
Shortness of breath occurs as a result of the interaction of many physical and even psychological factors. A panic attack, for instance, is something triggered by the brain but with very real, physical symptoms. It could even be the result of environmental conditions if air quality is poor in your area.
All of the following can be connected to shortness of breath on exertion:
- chronic obstructive pulmonary disease
- congestive heart failure
- poor physical conditioning
- late-stage pregnancy
- pulmonary embolism
- lung disease (interstitial fibrosis)
- cancer tumor
- kidney disease
- liver disease
Diagnosing the underlying cause of shortness of breath
When you have shortness of breath on exertion, you should make an appointment to see your doctor. They will ask about your medical history and conduct an exam. Tests will help determine the cause of your breathlessness. These tests may include:
- chest X-rays
- chest CT scan
- exercise testing
- pulmonary function studies (spirometry)
- lab tests, including a blood test
Treating shortness of breath
Treatment for this condition will depend on the findings of the medical tests. Management will focus on treating the cause of the shortness of breath.
For instance, if it’s caused by asthma, an inhaler may be used as treatment. If it’s a sign of poor physical condition, your doctor will likely suggest a fitness program. Sometimes you will simply have to cope with the symptom until the cause is resolved. In pregnancy, for instance, your breathlessness should improve after the baby is born.
How to recognize a potential medical emergency
A sudden onset of shortness of breath could be a medical emergency. Call 911 immediately if you experience this, especially if it’s accompanied by:
- air hunger (the feeling that no matter how deep you breathe, you still are not getting enough air)
- gasping for breath
- chest pain
- passing out or fainting
- sweating profusely
- pallor (pale skin)
- cyanosis (bluish-colored skin)
- coughing up blood or bubbly, pinkish mucus
- Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD). (2015, December 5). Retrieved from https://www.lung.ca/lung-health/lung-disease/copd/symptoms
- Dyspnea. (2015, July). Retrieved from http://www.clevelandclinicmeded.com/medicalpubs/diseasemanagement/pulmonary/dyspnea/
- Koehle, M., Lloyd-Smith, D. R., & MacKenzie, D. C. (2003, December). Exertional dyspnea in athletes. BC Medical Journal, 45(10), 508-514. Retrieved from http://www.bcmj.org/article/exertional-dyspnea-athletes
- Mayo Clinic Staff. (2016, August 30). Heart failure: Symptoms. Retrieved from http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/heart-failure/DS00061/DSECTION=symptoms
- Mayo Clinic Staff. (2016, February 27). Shortness of Breath. Retrieved from http://www.mayoclinic.org/symptoms/shortness-of-breath/basics/definition/sym-20050890
- Morgan, W. C., & Lodge, H. L. (1998, February 15). Diagnostic Evaluation of Dyspnea. American Family Physician, 57(4), 711-716. Retrieved from http://www.aafp.org/afp/1998/0215/p711.html
- Shortness of breath. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.merckmanuals.com/home/lung-and-airway-disorders/symptoms-of-lung-disorders/shortness-of-breath
See a list of possible causes in order from the most common to the least.
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