Shortness of breath, or feeling “winded,” can leave you struggling to draw a full breath. You might feel like you’ve just run at a sprint, climbed several flights of stairs, or taken an aerobics class. These sensations may be familiar if you exercise regularly — but outside the context of exercise, they can feel alarming.

When you’re short of breath, you might feel like you can’t get enough air into your lungs — and you can’t do it quickly enough. You may feel like you’re running short on oxygen. It can feel more difficult to inhale and exhale, and sometimes you might be compelled to draw a breath before you’ve even finished the last exhale.

Some symptoms that appear with shortness of breath include:

  • a tight sensation in your chest
  • feeling like you need to breathe more or more quickly
  • feeling like your body can’t get enough oxygen quickly enough

You might notice yourself becoming increasingly short of breath over a long period of time, or it could happen out of the blue. Sometimes, it can even strike while you’re at rest, such as when you’re sitting at your desk at work. Prolonged sitting can cause shortness of breath by way of bad posture.

Sometimes, having knots in your muscles, especially on trigger points, can make you feel short of breath.

Anxiety — whether acute and situational or a chronic disorder — can also cause you to feel short of breath. Anxiety or panic attacks can sometimes be mistaken for a heart attack. But you don’t have to experience a full-blown attack to feel short of breath. Low-level anxiety can cause this, too.

Shortness of breath can often occur due to outside circumstances, such as:

  • high altitudes
  • poor air quality, such as that due to carbon monoxide or smog
  • temperature extremes
  • strenuous exercise

But there are medical conditions that can cause shortness of breath, both acute and chronic, such as:

You’re at risk for shortness of breath or other related conditions when:

  • your muscles are weak, especially muscles involved in breathing, such as your diaphragm
  • your hemoglobin levels are low
  • you’re a smoker
  • your work or living space includes things that trigger your asthma

There are several alarming symptoms that you shouldn’t ignore, especially when accompanied by shortness of breath. These include:

  • a “winded” feeling that persists even after you’ve been resting for 30 minutes
  • swollen ankles and feet
  • coughing, chills, and elevated body temperature
  • wheezing or whistling sound when you inhale and exhale
  • a high-pitched sound when you breathe, known as a stridor
  • blue fingertips or lips
  • worsening shortness of breath after you’ve used your inhaler
  • difficulty breathing while lying flat on your back
  • pain or pressure in your chest
  • nausea
  • fainting

If you have any combination of these symptoms along with shortness of breath, it’s important to call your doctor and visit the emergency room for immediate medical care.

Being short of breath isn’t the same thing as having trouble breathing. When you’re having difficulty breathing normally, you might feel like:

  • you can’t completely inhale or exhale
  • your throat or chest are closing up or it feels like there’s a squeezing sensation around them
  • there’s an obstruction, narrowing, or tightening of your airway
  • something is physically keeping you from breathing

Difficulty breathing is also an emergency that requires immediate medical attention.

Once your doctor examines you and determines a diagnosis, they may prescribe medications like bronchodilators to help you breathe easier. If you’re anemic, you’ll need to take prescription supplements to raise your iron levels. Your doctor will also recommend measures, such as quitting smoking, to help you get more oxygen.

If your doctor diagnoses a serious or more complex health condition, they’ll recommend treatments accordingly.