Common Medical Conditions

Shortness of Breath (Dyspnea)

Written by Dr. K Sneha and medically reviewed by Kaushal Bhavsar

Image: Shortness of Breath (Dyspnea)


Shortness of Breath (Dyspnea)

Dyspnea is the medical term used for shortness of breath. It is the feeling of not having enough air in the lungs. A healthy individual usually breaths in and out for up to 20 times a minute, making it 30,000 breaths a day. Any physical work or cold can alter this breathing pattern, but apart from that, you should never feel out of breath. It can be a sign of some serious health problem and should be addressed immediately.


Depending on the onset and duration, it has two forms:

1. Acute Dyspnea: In this, you feel short of breath suddenly, and it might accompany other symptoms like cough and fever. It might last for a few minutes to an hour.

2. Chronic Dyspnea: It is when you feel out of breath while doing simple everyday tasks, for example, walking, standing, bending, etc. It is long lasting and usually due to some underlying chronic disease.


Shortness of breath is mostly a symptom of some underlying health condition. It is majorly due to some heart and lung diseases, as these are the organs that help in transporting oxygen to the tissues and removing carbon dioxide. So, any problems in the heart and lungs have a direct effect on your breathing.

The reasons for developing acute shortness of breath are:

  • Asthma.
  • Pneumonia.
  • Heart attack.
  • Heart failure.
  • Airway obstruction.
  • Panic attacks.
  • Anaphylaxis (allergic reaction).
  • Carbon monoxide poisoning.
  • Pneumothorax.
  • Choking.
  • Blood clot in the lungs (pulmonary embolism).

The conditions causing chronic shortness of breath are:

  • COPD (Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease).
  • Cardiomyopathy.
  • Obesity.
  • Pulmonary hypertension.
  • Anemia.
  • Deconditioning.
  • Interstitial lung disease.
  • Deviated nasal septum.

Signs and Symptoms:

The signs that one might have are as follows:

  • Feeling suffocated.
  • Breathlessness.
  • Breathing becomes labored.
  • Tightness in the chest.
  • Rapid and shallow breathing.
  • Wheezing.
  • Cough.
  • Flaring nostrils.
  • Gasping for air.


On your first visit, the doctor will examine you and listen to the breathing sounds. Then the doctor might order a few tests to diagnose the underlying cause. Some of the tests that might be needed are:

Spirometry: It is a lung function test used to measure the amount of air that you can blow in and out of your lungs and how fast you can do it.

Pulse Oximetry: It is a device which measures the amount of oxygen in your blood.

Blood Tests: A complete blood count (CBC) is done to rule out anemia. Other tests are done to look for infections, blood clot or fluid in the lungs.

• X-ray or CT (Computerized Tomography): A CT or chest X-ray will help the doctor to see if there are any blood clots in the lungs or if you have pneumonia.

• Electrocardiogram (ECG): ECG is used to see if your heart is healthy. It can detect if you are having a heart attack or some other heart problems.


The things that can trigger shortness of breath are environmental pollutants like:

  • Chemicals.
  • Fumes.
  • Dust.
  • Smoke.
  • Allergens like pollen.

When to See a Doctor?

If you are feeling out of breath frequently and without any apparent reason, it is best to consult a doctor, as it can be due to some serious medical condition. If shortness of breath is accompanied by chest pain, loss of consciousness, and nausea, it might be a sign of a heart attack or pulmonary embolism. If it increases on lying down, it is a sign of heart failure. Shortness of breath accompanied by cough, fever, and chills can be a sign of COPD (Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease) or pneumonia.


The treatment is generally done by treating the underlying disease. Depending on the cause, the different treatment options are:

  1. Pulmonary Rehabilitation: If your shortness of breath is caused due to any lung disease, you should consult a pulmonologist. The doctor will teach you breathing exercises which might help you to overcome the lung disease. You may need supplemental oxygen to keep you from feeling out of breath. The treatment for commonly seen respiratory problems are:

    1. Asthma - Generally, bronchodilators, steroids, and anti-inflammatory drugs are used for the treatment of asthma. Salbutamol, Formoterol, Ipratropium, Tiotropium, Theophylline Beclomethasone Diproprionate, Budesonide, and Fluticasone are some of the medicines used.

    2. COPD - Bronchodilators and steroids are prescribed for patients suffering from COPD. Also, physical exercise, diaphragmatic breathing, and oxygen therapy also help.

  2. Cardiac Rehabilitation: If any heart-related problem is making you feel out of breath, consult a cardiologist. Once the doctor treats your heart problem, you will notice an improvement in the way you breathe.

    1. Heart Failure - Patients with heart failure are advised to limit the salt and water intake. They are also prescribed diuretics, beta blockers, and ACE inhibitors drugs. In some cases of heart failure, a pacemaker might be implanted.

  3. Diet and Exercise: If being overweight is the cause, then following a healthier diet and exercise will help.


If you suffer from chronic dyspnea, the following preventive methods might help:

  • Avoid smoking.
  • Avoid exposure to environmental toxins and allergens by wearing protective masks.
  • Treat the underlying medical condition.
  • Lose weight if you are obese.
  • Manage your blood pressure and cholesterol levels to prevent heart problems.

Shortness of breath should never be ignored. Always consult your doctor if you notice any change in your symptoms. Feeling short of breath can be a medical emergency, so get medical help as soon as possible. Conditions of the heart and lungs can cause chronic dyspnea, and you might have it for a long time, but with treatment, regular checkups, and lifestyle changes, you will be able to breathe normally and lead a normal life.

Last reviewed at: 25.Apr.2019



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