Shortness of breath is known medically as dyspnea.

It’s the feeling of not being able to get enough air. You may feel severely tight in the chest or hungry for air. This can cause you to feel uncomfortable and exhausted.

Breathlessness often occurs in early pregnancy due to elevated hormone levels as well as the need for more oxygen.

Continue reading to learn more about why breathlessness happens during pregnancy, what it means, and what you can do about it.

Why does this occur?

Even though your baby isn’t big enough to be putting pressure on your lungs, you may find it less easy to breathe, or you may be more aware that you need to take a deep breath.

This is due to changes to the respiratory system as well as hormone production during pregnancy.

The surplus of the hormone progesterone during the first trimester has an effect on your breathing. More progesterone is produced in order to help build and sustain the uterine lining. Progesterone also increases the amount of air you inhale and exhale while breathing normally.

During the first weeks of pregnancy you’re also adjusting to sharing your oxygen and blood with your baby. This is another factor that can cause shortness of breath.

Feelings of breathlessness may be intensified if you have a heart or lung condition.

Is it a sign that you’re pregnant?

On its own, breathlessness isn’t a reliable sign of pregnancy before you’ve gotten a positive pregnancy test.

Shortness of breath can be due to other factors as well as hormonal changes that take place around ovulation and during the luteal phase (second half) of a normal menstrual cycle.

After ovulation, progesterone levels increase to help build a healthy lining of the uterus. This helps to support a healthy pregnancy, but it happens regardless of whether you get pregnant during any given cycle.

If you’re not pregnant, you’ll shed this uterine lining when you get your period.

However, shortness of breath could be an early sign that you’re pregnant if it’s combined with other symptoms. These signs of early pregnancy include feeling tired, fatigued, or dizzy. You may have swollen or tender breasts, cramping, and light spotting before your period is due.

Other early symptoms include:

  • cravings for or aversion to certain foods
  • a heightened sense of smell
  • nausea
  • mood swings
  • increased urination
  • bloating
  • constipation

Symptoms of early pregnancy can be similar to signs that you’re about to get your period or are getting sick.

You should always take a pregnancy test to confirm your pregnancy.

How does it progress later in pregnancy?

You may continue to experience shortness of breath throughout your pregnancy.

As your pregnancy progresses, your baby will need more oxygen from your blood. This will cause you to require more oxygen and breathe more often.

Plus, your baby’s size will increase. Your expanding uterus will take up more room in your belly and push on other organs in your body.

Around the 31st to 34th week of pregnancy, your uterus presses on your diaphragm, making it more difficult for your lungs to fully expand. This can cause shallow breathing and breathlessness.

You may experience less shortness of breath during the last few weeks of pregnancy when your baby moves deeper into the pelvis to prepare for birth. This eases some of the pressure on your lungs and diaphragm.

What are your options for relief and treatment?

There are several lifestyle changes and home treatments that may help reduce the discomfort of shortness of breath in early pregnancy and beyond.

Here are a few suggestions:

  • Stop smoking and avoid secondhand smoke. Smoking and pregnancy don’t mix, regardless of symptoms.
  • Avoid exposure to pollutants, allergens, and environmental toxins.
  • Use indoor air filters and avoid artificial fragrances, mold, and dust.
  • Maintain a healthy weight.
  • Follow a healthy diet with foods rich in antioxidants.
  • Listen to your body and get plenty of rest.
  • Follow a moderate exercise program. Your level of exercise will vary in the first, second, and third trimesters.
  • Avoid physical exertion, especially at elevations higher than 5,000 feet (1,524 meters).
  • Take as many breaks as you need.
  • Practice good posture. This allows your lungs to fully expand.
  • Breathe into the front, back, and sides of your rib cage.
  • Breathe with pursed lips to slow down your breath.
  • Practice diaphragmatic breathing.
  • Treat any underlying medical conditions that may contribute to breathlessness.
  • Get your annual flu vaccine to help prevent lung infections and encourage lung health.
  • Use pillows to prop yourself up while you sleep.
  • Sleep in a relaxed position.
  • Sit in a chair and lean forward to rest on your knees, a table, or a pillow.
  • Stand with a supported back or supported arms.
  • Use a fan.

When to see a doctor

Mild shortness of breath is usually nothing to worry about and doesn’t affect the amount of oxygen delivered to the baby.

Conditions that affect your breathing have the potential to worsen during pregnancy. If you have a condition that affects your breathing, such as asthma, be sure to talk to your doctor about how to manage this condition during pregnancy.

Talk to your healthcare provider right away if breathlessness becomes severe, happens suddenly, or affects your ability to function.

Seek medical care if your shortness of breath is accompanied by any of the following symptoms:

  • rapid pulse rate
  • heart palpitations (fast, strong heartbeat)
  • feeling dizzy or faint
  • nausea
  • chest pain
  • swollen ankles and feet
  • blueness around the lips, fingers, or toes
  • a lingering cough
  • wheezing
  • coughing up blood
  • fever or chills
  • worsening asthma

Always talk to your doctor if anything concerns you during your pregnancy. It’s important that you have clear communication with your doctor and are comfortable discussing anything that arises.

Your doctor can determine if everything you’re experiencing is normal.