Shortness of breath, or feeling “winded,” can make it difficult to draw in a full breath. You might feel like you’ve just run 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 be alarming.
Shortness of breath can be a symptom of a variety of medical conditions, including various heart and lung conditions. Read on to learn more about what shortness of breath feels like and what causes it.
Shortness of breath is a relatively common symptom that can be present in many types of health conditions. The medical name for shortness of breath is dyspnea. It’s considered acute if it lasts for hours to days. It’s considered chronic if it lasts for more than
Anxiety — whether acute and situational or a chronic disorder — can cause you to feel short of breath. Anxiety or a panic attack can sometimes be mistaken for a heart attack.
But you don’t have to experience a panic attack to feel short of breath. Low-level anxiety can cause this too.
Shortness of breath can often occur due to other circumstances, such as:
- being at high altitudes
- poor air quality, for instance due to carbon monoxide or smog
- temperature extremes
- strenuous exercise
Having knots in your muscles, especially on trigger points, can sometimes make you feel short of breath.
Certain medical conditions can also cause shortness of breath, both acute and chronic. Conditions that may cause shortness of breath include:
- congestive heart failure
- chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)
- Guillain-Barré syndrome
- heart arrhythmia or heart attack
- heart disease
- lung disease
- myasthenia gravis
- pulmonary edema
- pulmonary embolism
- pulmonary arterial hypertension
Shortness of breath can occur on and off or be constant. Depending on the underlying cause of your shortness of breath, you may also have symptoms of other medical conditions.
Sometimes, shortness of breath can even strike while you’re at rest, for instance when you’re sitting at your desk at work. Prolonged sitting can cause shortness of breath due to bad posture.
One of the signature symptoms of COVID-19 is shortness of breath. Other common symptoms of COVID-19 include fever, cough, and fatigue.
Most people who get COVID-19 will experience mild to moderate symptoms that can be treated at home. If you’re sick and suspect you may have COVID-19, the
- Get tested for COVID-19. Call your doctor to find out where you should go to get tested.
- Stay home and separate yourself from all family members and pets as much as possible.
- Cover your coughs and sneezes and wear a face mask if you must be around other people, but try to stay 6 feet away at a minimum.
- Stay in touch with your doctor and call ahead if you end up seeking medical attention.
- Wash your hands often.
- Avoid sharing household items with other people in your home.
- Disinfect common surfaces often.
You should also monitor your symptoms while at home. Seek emergency care immediately if you experience:
- trouble breathing
- rapid, shallow breathing
- heaviness, pain, or pressure in your chest
- bluish or grayish lips, skin, or nail beds
- a rapid heart rate
People with dark skin may have more trouble than people with light skin, observing skin color changes that indicate oxygen deprivation.
Shortness of breath can be a scary feeling. It’s a subjective sensation, meaning it can’t be measured. However, doctors can measure other things that may be caused by shortness of breath, such as your blood oxygen levels.
If your blood oxygen level is too low, it means you’re not taking in enough oxygen and it’s not circulating with your red blood cells. This can be dangerous, especially if your blood oxygen levels dip too low.
If you’re experiencing shortness of breath, you might feel like you can’t get enough air into your lungs — and that you can’t do it quickly enough.
It may seem as though you’re running short on oxygen. It may be more difficult to inhale and exhale. Sometimes you might be compelled to draw a breath before you’ve even finished exhaling.
Symptoms that appear with shortness of breath may include:
- a tight sensation in your chest
- a feeling of suffocation
- feeling like you need to work harder than normal to catch your breath
- feeling like you need to breathe more often or more quickly
- feeling like your body can’t get oxygen quickly enough
- feeling like you can’t take full breaths
- difficulty fully catching your breath
You might notice yourself becoming increasingly short of breath over a long period of time, or it could happen out of the blue. Symptoms are often most noticeable when you’re physically active, like when you climb stairs or try to exercise, but shortness of breath can happen even if you’re at rest.
The American Lung Association recommends talking with your doctor whenever you experience shortness of breath that isn’t expected due to your current activity and fitness levels. You should also contact your doctor if you don’t respond to treatment for shortness of breath.
Other worrying symptoms, together with shortness of breath, that should prompt medical attention include:
- pain or pressure in your chest
- a “winded” feeling that persists even after you’ve been resting for 30 minutes
- wheezing or a whistling sound when you inhale and exhale
- a high-pitched sound when you breathe, known as a stridor
- coughing, chills, and elevated body temperature
- blue fingertips or lips
- swollen ankles and feet
- worsening shortness of breath after you’ve used an inhaler
- difficulty breathing while lying flat on your back
If you have any combination of these symptoms along with shortness of breath, it’s important to call your doctor or visit an 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.
Treatment for shortness of breath depends on the underlying cause. Once your doctor examines you and provides a diagnosis, treatment may involve one or more of the following:
- Medication. Your doctor may prescribe medications like bronchodilators to help you breathe easier or steroids to reduce swelling in your lungs.
- Prescription supplements. If you’re anemic, you may need to take prescription supplements to raise your iron levels.
- Surgery. Surgery may be a treatment option for certain conditions, such as chronic blood clots or structural problems with your heart.
- Oxygen therapy. If you have an infection such as COVID-19, you may be given oxygen therapy to help support your breathing. You may also be given supportive drugs such as antiviral medications.
- Antibiotics. If you have a bacterial infection, you may be given antibiotic medication.
- Avoiding tobacco and allergy triggers. Your doctor may recommend that you quit smoking or avoid secondhand smoke to help you breathe more easily. It’s also important to avoid exposure to allergy triggers or other potential lung irritants.
- Lifestyle changes. If obesity is a contributing factor, your doctor may recommend changing your lifestyle habits. This will likely include eating a balanced diet and exercising more often.
Other steps you can try to help prevent and manage shortness of breath include the following:
- Avoid strenuous physical activity above 5,000 feet unless you’re accustomed to a high altitude.
- Try not to overexert yourself.
- Get regular medical checkups.
- Take all your prescribed medications exactly as instructed.
- If you’re on oxygen therapy, regularly check to make sure your equipment is working properly.
You may be at a higher risk of shortness of breath or other related conditions if you have:
- weak muscles, especially those involved in breathing, such as your diaphragm
- asthma or other chronic respiratory conditions such as COPD or cystic fibrosis
- low hemoglobin levels
- a work or living space which includes things that trigger your asthma
- a compromised immune system or a heightened risk of developing respiratory illness
- a tendency to smoke often
Shortness of breath can be a symptom of many different health conditions. It can range from mild to serious, and may come on gradually or happen suddenly.
If you’re experiencing shortness of breath, you might feel like you can’t get enough air into your lungs, and that you can’t do it quickly enough. It may be difficult to inhale and exhale, and you might feel like you need to draw a breath before you’ve even finished exhaling.
Seek medical attention any time you experience unusual shortness of breath, especially if the feeling persists even after you’ve rested, or you have other concerning symptoms too, such as chest pressure, nausea, fever, or chills.