What Causes Shortness of Breath?

Medically reviewed by Judith Marcin, MD on February 27, 2018Written by Chitra Badii and Marijane Leonard

Experiencing breathing difficulty describes discomfort when breathing and feeling as if you can’t draw a complete breath. This can develop gradually or come on suddenly. Mild breathing problems, such as fatigue after an aerobics class, don’t fall... Read More

 

Experiencing breathing difficulty describes discomfort when breathing and feeling as if you can’t draw a complete breath. This can develop gradually or come on suddenly. Mild breathing problems, such as fatigue after an aerobics class, don’t fall into this category.

Breathing difficulties can be caused by many different conditions. They can also develop as a result of stress and anxiety.

It’s important to note that frequent episodes of shortness of breath or sudden, intense breathing difficulty may be signs of a serious health issue that needs medical attention. You should discuss any breathing concerns with your doctor.

What causes breathing difficulties?

Breathing difficulties can be caused by common health conditions, as well as environmental issues. These can include:

Lung conditions

There are a number of lung conditions that can cause you to experience difficulty breathing. Many of these require immediate medical attention.

Asthma

Asthma is an inflammation and narrowing of the airways that can cause:

  • shortness of breath
  • wheezing
  • chest tightness
  • coughing

Asthma is a common condition that can range in severity.

Pneumonia

Pneumonia is a lung infection that can cause inflammation and a buildup of fluid and pus in the lung. Most types are contagious. Pneumonia can be a life-threatening condition, so prompt treatment is important.

Symptoms may include:

  • shortness of breath
  • cough
  • chest pain
  • chills
  • sweating
  • fever
  • muscle pain
  • exhaustion

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) refers to a group of diseases that lead to poor lung function. Other signs and symptoms include:

  • wheezing
  • a constant cough
  • increased mucus production
  • low oxygen levels
  • chest tightness

Emphysema, often caused by years of smoking, is in this category of diseases.

Pulmonary embolism

A pulmonary embolism is a blockage in one or more of the arteries leading to the lungs. This is often the result of a blood clot from elsewhere in the body, like the leg or pelvis, traveling up to a lung. This can be life-threatening and it requires immediate medical attention.

Other symptoms include:

  • swelling of the leg
  • chest pain
  • cough
  • wheezing
  • profuse sweating
  • abnormal heart rate
  • dizziness
  • loss of consciousness
  • a bluish tint to the skin

Pulmonary hypertension

Pulmonary hypertension is high blood pressure that affects the arteries in the lungs. This condition is often due to the narrowing or hardening of these arteries and can lead to heart failure. Symptoms of this condition often start with:

  • chest pain
  • shortness of breath
  • trouble exercising
  • extreme tiredness

Later on, symptoms can be very similar to those of a pulmonary embolism.

Most people with this condition will notice worsening shortness of breath over time. Chest pain, shortness of breath, or loss of consciousness are symptoms that require emergency medical attention.

Croup

Croup is a respiratory condition caused by an acute viral infection. It’s known for causing a distinctive barking cough.

Make an appointment with your doctor if you or your child has symptoms of croup. Children between 6 months old and 3 years old are most susceptible to this condition.

Epiglottitis

Epiglottitis is a swelling of the tissue that covers your windpipe, due to infection. This is a potentially life-threatening disease that requires immediate medical attention.

Other symptoms include:

  • fever
  • sore throat
  • drooling
  • blue skin
  • difficulty breathing and swallowing
  • strange breathing sounds
  • chills
  • hoarseness

One common cause of epiglottis may be prevented by a haemophilus influenzae type b (Hib) vaccination. This vaccine is generally only given to children under the age of five, as adults are less likely to get a Hib infection.

Heart conditions

You may notice yourself feeling out of breath more often if you have a heart condition. This is because your heart is struggling to pump oxygen-rich blood to the rest of your body. There are a variety of possible conditions that can cause this problem:

Coronary artery disease

Coronary artery disease (CAD) is a disease that causes the arteries that supply blood to the heart to narrow and harden. This condition leads to decreased blood flow to the heart, which can permanently damage the heart muscle. Signs and symptoms also include:

Congenital heart disease

A congenital heart disease, sometimes called congenital heart defects, refers to inherited problems with the structure and function of the heart. These problems can lead to:

  • breathing difficulty
  • breathlessness
  • abnormal heart rhythms

Arrhythmias

Arrhythmias are types of irregular heartbeats, affecting the heart rhythm or heart rate, causing a heart to beat too fast or too slow. People with preexisting heart conditions are at higher risk for developing an arrhythmia.

Congestive heart failure

Congestive heart failure (CHF) occurs when the heart muscle becomes weak and unable to pump blood efficiently throughout the body. This often leads to a buildup of fluid in and around the lungs.

Other heart conditions that could lead to breathing difficulty include:

Other conditions causing breathing difficulty

Hiatal hernia

A hiatal hernia occurs when the upper part of the stomach protrudes through the diaphragm into the chest. People with large hiatal hernias may also experience:

  • chest pain
  • difficulty swallowing
  • heartburn

Medication and lifestyle changes can often treat small hiatal hernias. Larger hernias or smaller ones that don’t respond to treatment may require surgery.

Who’s at risk for breathing difficulties?

You’re at greater risk for breathing problems if you:

  • experience constant stress
  • have allergies
  • have a chronic lung or heart condition

Obesity also increases the risk of breathing difficulties. Extreme physical exertion can also put you at risk for breathing problems, particularly when you exercise in intense spurts or at high altitudes.

What are the symptoms of breathing difficulties?

The primary symptom of breathing problems is feeling as though you can’t breathe in enough oxygen. Some specific signs include:

Contact emergency services if your breathing difficulty comes on suddenly. Seek immediate medical attention for anyone whose breathing appears to have slowed considerably or stopped. After you have called 911, perform emergency CPR if you know how to do so.

Some symptoms, along with breathing difficulty, can indicate a serious problem. These problems may indicate an angina attack, a lack of oxygen, or a heart attack. Symptoms to be aware of include:

  • fever
  • pain or pressure in the chest
  • wheezing
  • tightness in the throat
  • a barking cough
  • shortness of breath that requires you to sit up constantly
  • shortness of breath that wakes you up during the night

Breathing difficulties in young children

Babies and young children often have breathing difficulties when they have respiratory viruses. Breathing symptoms often occur because small children don’t know how to clear their noses and throats. There are several conditions that can lead to more severe breathing difficulties. Most children recover from these conditions with proper treatment.

Croup

Croup is a respiratory illness usually caused by a virus. Children between the age of 6 months old and 3 years old are considered the most likely to get croup, but it can develop in older children. It usually begins with symptoms similar to a cold.

The main symptom of the illness is a loud, barking cough. Breathing difficulties can result from the frequent coughing. This often occurs at night, with the first and second nights of coughing usually the worst. Most cases of croup resolve within a week.

Some more serious cases may require emergency medical attention.

Bronchiolitis

Bronchiolitis is a viral lung infection that often affects babies younger than 6 months old. Respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) is the most common cause of this problem. The illness may appear like the common cold at first, but in a few days it may be followed by:

  • coughing
  • rapid breathing
  • wheezing

Oxygen levels can become quite low and can require treatment in the hospital. In most cases, babies get well in 7 to 10 days.

Your child needs medical attention if they:

  • have increased or persistent breathing difficulty
  • are taking more than 40 breaths per minute
  • must sit up to breathe
  • have retractions, when the skin of the chest between the ribs and the neck sinks in with each breath

If your child has heart disease or was born prematurely, you should seek medical attention as soon as you notice they’re having difficulty breathing.

How are breathing difficulties diagnosed?

Your doctor will need to determine the underlying cause of your breathing difficulties. They’ll ask you how long you’ve had the problem, whether it’s mild or intense, and whether physical exertion makes it worse. After reviewing your medical history, your doctor will examine your airway passages, lungs, and heart.

Depending on the findings of your physical exam, your doctor might recommend one or more diagnostic tests, including:

Your doctor may also have you perform exercise testing to see how your heart and lungs react to physical exertion.

What are the treatment options for breathing difficulties?

Treatments for breathing difficulties will depend on the underlying cause.

Lifestyle changes

If having a stuffy nose, exercising too hard, or hiking at high altitudes causes your symptoms, your breathing is likely to return to normal if you’re otherwise healthy. The temporary symptoms will resolve once your cold goes away, you stop exercising, or you return to a lower altitude.

Stress reduction

If stress is causing your breathing problems, you can reduce stress by developing coping mechanisms. Just a few ways to relieve stress include:

Listening to relaxing music or talking to a friend can also help you reset and refocus.

Medication

Some breathing difficulties are symptoms of serious heart and lung illnesses. In these cases, your doctor will prescribe medication and other treatments. If you have asthma, for example, you may need to use an inhaler immediately after experiencing breathing problems.

If you have allergies, your doctor may prescribe an antihistamine to reduce your body’s allergic reaction. Your doctor may also recommend avoiding allergy triggers like dust or pollen.

In extreme cases, you may need oxygen therapy, a breathing machine, or other treatment and monitoring at a hospital.

If your child is experiencing mild breathing difficulties, you may want to try some soothing home remedies alongside treatment from a doctor. Cool or moist air can help, so take your child outside into the night air or into a steamy bathroom. You can also try running a cool mist humidifier while your child is sleeping.

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Medically reviewed by Judith Marcin, MD on February 27, 2018Written by Chitra Badii and Marijane Leonard

180 possible conditions

This feature is for informational purposes only and should not be used to diagnose. Please consult a healthcare professional if you have health concerns.

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