If you’ve ever felt you couldn’t breathe in enough air, you’ve experienced a condition known medically as dyspnea. Shortness of breath can be a symptom of health problems, often related to heart or lung disease. But you can also experience temporary dyspnea after an intense workout.
The main symptom of dyspnea is labored breathing. It may last for a minute or two after strenuous activity. Or it could be a chronic problem. You may have the sensation of just not getting quite enough air into your lungs all the time. In serious 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, 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.
If you’ve ever run or swam a race, you know that it may take a few minutes to catch your breath. You may have trouble breathing in enough oxygen to meet your body’s increased demand. If you’re healthy, your breathing will ease soon. You’ll be breathing normally within a few minutes.
Exercise is usually a trigger for short-term dyspnea. If you’re at a higher elevation and you’re not used to having less oxygen available, you may also experience temporary dyspnea. At extremely high elevations, such as mountaintops, the “thinner” air can be a real health hazard. Be sure to consult with a climbing expert before making an ambitious high-elevation trek.
Dyspnea caused by medical conditions covers a wide range of health concerns. While they should all be evaluated by a doctor, conditions that bring on sudden breathlessness should be treated as emergencies. These include:
- heart failure
- low blood pressure
- pulmonary embolism (a blood clot in the lungs)
- carbon monoxide poisoning
- stress or anxiety
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 loss of blood will also make breathing more difficult.
When shortness of breath isn’t a sudden emergency, but is instead a problem that lingers for at least four weeks, it’s considered chronic. Examples of chronic dyspnea causes include:
- chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), which covers emphysema and chronic bronchitis
- interstitial lung disease (scarring of lung tissue)
- poor physical conditioning
- heart disease
Asthma can be both a chronic problem and a short-term emergency, depending on the nature of your condition and the availability of an inhaler to treat a sudden attack. If you have asthma, talk with your doctor about how to respond to symptoms and what you can do to prevent breathing problems.
Treating dyspnea usually means treating its underlying cause.
Diet and exercise
If obesity and a poor fitness level are the cause of dyspnea you may be experiencing, eat healthier meals and exercise frequently. If it’s been a long time or you have a medical condition that limits your activity level, talk with your doctor about how to begin a safe exercise routine.
COPD and other lung problems 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. Pulmonary rehabilitation may also be helpful. This is a program of supervised exercise and education about breathing techniques to help you overcome lung disease.
Heart-related causes are treated by a cardiologist, a doctor specializing in heart disorders. If you have heart failure, it means your heart is too weak to pump enough oxygenated blood to meet your body’s requirements. Dyspnea is one of several symptoms of heart failure. Cardiac rehabilitation can help you manage heart failure and other heart-related conditions. In serious cases of heart failure, an artificial pump may be needed to take over the blood pumping duties of a weakened heart.
Preventing dyspnea means avoiding or managing its many possible causes. The most obvious risk factor for shortness of breath is smoking. If you smoke, seek 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. Your lung and heart health will start to improve within hours of having your last cigarette.
Air pollution and airborne chemicals can also lead to breathing problems. So 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 healthy weight can help you avoid a number of health problems. If you need help losing weight, talk with your doctor about using a nutritionist or dietitian in your area to help you plan meals and change your eating style.
When to see a doctor
Because unexplained dyspnea can be a sign of a serious medical condition, it’s definitely something you should discuss with a doctor. 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, that’s a sign of heart failure. You should see a doctor soon for a diagnosis.
If shortness of breath is accompanied by coughing, it may be a sign of COPD or pneumonia. Chills, fever, and coughing that produces phlegm are also symptoms of pneumonia. Don’t hesitate to see a doctor. Pneumonia is an infection of the lungs. It can be very serious, especially in older adults, and can lead to hospitalization and even death if not treated properly.
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.