Dyspnea, which some refer to as shortness of breath, is a feeling that you cannot breathe enough air into your lungs. During this, you may also experience tightness in your chest.
This shortness of breath can be a symptom of health conditions, often relating to heart or lung disease. However, you can also experience temporary dyspnea after an intense workout or other physical activity.
Read on to learn more about the symptoms of dyspnea, its causes, and how doctors can treat it.
The main symptom of dyspnea is labored breathing. It may last for 1 or 2 minutes after strenuous activity. Or it could be a chronic symptom that persists over longer periods, according to the National Health Service.
In mild cases, you may feel like you are not getting quite enough air into your lungs. However, in severe cases, you may feel as though you’re suffocating. Bouts of dyspnea may also bring on chest tightness.
Dyspnea that occurs after strenuous exercise is understandable. However, you should seek medical attention if any of the following occurs:
- You’re short of breath sooner than you used to be after physical activity.
- You’re breathless after activity that you used to handle without a problem.
- You start to experience dyspnea without any explanation.
Exercise is usually a trigger for short-term dyspnea. Following strenuous activity, you
In these cases, it is natural to need a few minutes to catch your breath. However, this will typically improve with rest, and you’ll be breathing at your regular rate within a few minutes.
If you’re at a higher elevation and you’re not used to having less oxygen available, you may also experience temporary dyspnea. Be sure to consult with a climbing expert before making an ambitious high-elevation trek.
Dyspnea can also result from a wide range of health conditions. You should always treat conditions that bring on sudden breathlessness as emergencies.
Conditions that may cause short-term dyspnea include:
- sudden heart failure
- low blood pressure
- pulmonary embolism (a blood clot in the lungs)
- pneumothorax (collapsed lung)
- carbon monoxide poisoning
- anaphylaxis (severe allergic reaction)
- stress or anxiety
- extreme temperatures
- pleural effusion
- worsening chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)
You may also experience sudden dyspnea if a piece of food or some other object blocks your airway. An injury that harms a lung or causes a rapid blood loss will also make breathing more difficult.
You may feel mild shortness of breath over a long period, rather than in severe attacks. If these feelings last more than 1 month, the National Health Service says that doctors may diagnose chronic dyspnea. This can often be the result of long-term underlying conditions.
Examples of chronic dyspnea causes include:
- chronic COPD, which covers emphysema and chronic bronchitis
- interstitial lung disease (scarring of lung tissue)
- difficulty managing your physical conditioning
- lung cancer
- pulmonary hypertension
- pleural effusion (fluid in the chest)
- heart disease
Asthma can be both a chronic condition and a short-term emergency. This can depend on the nature of your condition and the availability of an inhaler during sudden attacks.
If you have asthma, talk with your doctor about how to respond to symptoms and what you can do to prevent breathing concerns.
Treating dyspnea usually means treating its underlying cause.
Diet and exercise
If having obesity and having a difficult time managing your fitness level are causing dyspnea, eating a balanced diet and frequently exercising may help reduce symptoms.
If it’s been a long time or you have a medical condition that limits your activity level, talk with your doctor about beginning a safe exercise routine.
COPD and other lung conditions require the care of a pulmonologist, a doctor who specializes in the health of your lungs and respiratory system. You may need supplemental oxygen in a portable tank to help keep you from feeling out of breath.
Dyspnea is one of several symptoms of heart failure. If you have heart failure, it means your heart is too weak to pump enough oxygenated blood to meet your body’s requirements.
Cardiac rehabilitation can help you manage heart failure and other heart-related conditions. In severe cases of heart failure, you may require an artificial pump to assist heart function.
If this is not the case, they will conduct a range of tests to find the cause of your dyspnea. These may include:
- physical evaluation
- a review of medical history
- imaging scans
- blood tests
- lung function tests (spirometry)
- pulse oximetry
During a physical exam, doctors will measure your pulse, rate of breathing, body mass index, and body temperature. A high temperature may indicate a fever is causing dyspnea, while an abnormal pulse may indicate an underlying heart condition.
A chest X-ray is often a first diagnostic step in determining if lung or heart complications are causing dyspnea. Doctors may also use computerized tomography (CT) scans during diagnosis. These scans can show:
- pulmonary embolism
- pleural effusions
- interstitial lung disease
If the tests above do not reveal the condition’s cause, doctors may use echocardiogram and electrocardiogram imaging to assess heart function further. They may also wish to determine your overall lung strength and blood oxygen levels using lung function tests and pulse oximetry.
If you need help finding a primary care doctor, then check out our FindCare tool here.
Preventing dyspnea means avoiding or managing its many possible causes. The most obvious risk factor for shortness of breath is smoking.
If you smoke, consider seeking out a smoking cessation specialist or program in your community. There are many effective products and therapies now that can help you quit. It’s never too late.
Other steps you can take to prevent dyspnea include:
- Treating underlying conditions. Underlying health conditions can cause dyspnea. Sticking to treatment plans in order to manage these can help to prevent shortness of breath.
- Avoiding air pollution. Air pollution and airborne chemicals can also lead to breathing concerns. If you work in an environment with poor air quality, consider using a mask to filter out lung irritants, and make sure your workplace is well-ventilated.
- Maintaining a moderate weight. This can help you avoid a number of health concerns. If you need help managing your weight, talk with your doctor about using a nutritionist or dietitian in your area to help you plan meals and change your eating style to a nutritious diet.
- Avoiding overexertion. Intense physical activity can cause short-term dyspnea. Avoiding, or minimizing, overexertion can help prevent this from occurring.
Because unexplained dyspnea can be a symptom of a severe medical condition, you should always talk with a doctor about it. If you suddenly have other symptoms, such as lightheadedness or chest pain, you should seek emergency care.
If your shortness of breath is worse when you’re lying down, it may be a symptom of heart failure. In this instance, you should contact a medical professional as soon as possible.
If you experience persistent coughing alongside dyspnea, it may be a symptom of COPD or pneumonia. Chills, fever, and coughing that produces phlegm are also symptoms of pneumonia.
Pneumonia is an infection of the lungs. It can be severe, especially in older adults, and can lead to hospitalization and even death without treatment.
Because dyspnea is a symptom, not a condition, your outlook will depend on how well you can manage or avoid its causes. Conditions such as COPD and heart failure are chronic, meaning you will have them for life.
However, improvements in treatment are helping people live longer and with a greater quality of life, even with these conditions.
The key is to follow your doctor’s advice about treatment, regular checkups, and lifestyle changes that will help you breathe easier for a long time.