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Shortness of Breath (Dyspnea)

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Shortness of Breath (Dyspnea)

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The medical term for shortness of breath is dyspnea. Learn about the types, causes, associated symptoms, and treatment for dyspnea.

Medically reviewed by

Dr. Kaushal Bhavsar

Published At December 27, 2018
Reviewed AtFebruary 23, 2024

What Is 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 from 14 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. Extreme cold conditions can also cause shortness of breath. Negligence is the main reason for the state to progress further.

What Are the Types of Dyspnea?

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

1. Chronic Dyspnea: This is when you feel out of breath while doing simple everyday routine tasks, such as walking, standing, bending, etc. It is long-lasting and usually due to some underlying chronic disease.

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

3. Platypnea: This refers to the condition where the breathlessness occurs when a person is in an upright position. It can be relieved by sitting down or resting for a while.

4. Trepopnea: It is the type of breathlessness that occurs when a person is lying on one side. The patients tend to lie down on the opposite side of the affected lungs.

5. Orthopnea: When a person is lying down flat on his back and suffers from shortness of breath, it is known as orthopnea.

6. Paroxysmal Nocturnal Dyspnea: It refers to the episode of coughing and breathlessness at night. Nocturnal refers to the night time.

Acute and chronic dyspnea are categorized according to the duration of occurrence. All the other types occur depending on the variations in positions.

What Are the Causes?

Shortness of breath is the most common sign of some underlying health condition. It is majorly due to some heart and lung diseases, as these are the organs that help transport oxygen to the tissues and remove 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.

  • Pulmonary embolism - a blood clot in the lungs.

The conditions causing chronic shortness of breath are:

COPD (Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease).

  • Cardiomyopathy.

  • Obesity.

  • Pulmonary hypertension.

  • Anemia.

  • Interstitial lung disease.

  • Deviated nasal septum.

What Are the Signs and Symptoms of Dyspnea?

The signs and symptoms 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 out and into your lungs and how fast you can do it.

Pulse Oximetry: It is a device that 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 clots, 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.

What Are the Triggering Factors?

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.

What Are the Treatment Options?

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. Supplemental oxygen might be required 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 Dipropionate, Budesonide, and Fluticasone are some of the medicines used.

    2. COPD - Bronchodilators and steroids are prescribed for patients suffering from COPD. 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 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, following a healthier diet and exercise will help. Yoga is the best exercise for increasing your lung capacity.

What Are the Precautionary Measures?

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 cholesterol levels and blood pressure 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 healthy life.

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Frequently Asked Questions


What is the most common cause of shortness of breath?

The most common causes of shortness of breath are heart failure, asthma, pneumonia, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), interstitial lung disease, and psychogenic problems linked with anxiety. Shortness of breath is called dyspnea, and if it occurs suddenly, it is called acute dyspnea.


How do I get rid of my shortness of breath at home?

Home remedies for breathlessness include inhaling steam. Drinking black coffee will help as the caffeine in it reduces tiredness. Eating fresh ginger will cure breathlessness caused by a respiratory infection.


Is shortness of breath serious?

Breathing difficulties caused by extensive exercises and mere nasal congestion cannot be a harm. But if it is due to heart or lung problems, it is a serious sign and requires help from a doctor.


How do I know if my shortness of breath is heart-related?

To diagnose heart diseases, specific laboratory tests are required. Highly specific imaging techniques are required for an accurate diagnosis. Consult a doctor to start with a diagnosis.


Can dehydration cause shortness of breath?

Dehydration can cause the mucus to thicken and get sticky. It slows down the respiratory rate. Thereby susceptibility to illness, allergies, and other respiratory problems increases. Water is essential to keep nasal passages, bronchial tubes, and lungs moist. Dehydration can cause breathing problems.


How do you test for shortness of breath?

Pulse oximetry, electrocardiography (EKG), and chest x-ray are the tests available to detect shortness of breath. These tested should be prescribed by an authorized physician.


How do I know if my shortness of breath is anxiety?

Having panic attacks causes an alteration in the normal breathing pattern. There is a strong association between anxiety and respiratory symptoms. Our breathing becomes shallow and restricted accompanied by chest tightness. These types of symptoms are seen in person with an anxiety disorder.


What medications are to be taken for shortness of breath?

A commonly prescribed drug is Ipratropium bromide. Bronchodilators such as Salbutamol and Salmeterol are prescribed as it widens the respiratory airway and increases the airflow.


What is positional dyspnea?

Depending on the position of the patient, shortness of breath may vary. When a patient is sleeping sideways, breathlessness might occur and it is known as orthopnea. It is usually relieved by sitting or standing position. When a patient is sleeping at night, the sensation of shortness of breath might awaken the patient, after 1 or 2 hours of sleep. It is relieved by moving to an upright position.


Is dyspnea dangerous?

A person may have dyspnea even though the levels of oxygen are in a normal range. It is just a sign that there is deconditioning in the body. An acute type of dyspnea can occur suddenly and can be dangerous, which the healthcare team has to assess right away if the symptoms get worse.
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Dr. Kaushal Bhavsar
Dr. Kaushal Bhavsar

Pulmonology (Asthma Doctors)


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