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Breathing Difficulty - Signs, Symptoms, Diagnosis, and Treatment

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Long-term lung or cardiac disorders result in difficulty breathing. Read the article below to learn about the signs of difficulty breathing.

Written by

Dr. Saberitha

Medically reviewed by

Dr. Nagaraj

Published At August 25, 2022
Reviewed AtJuly 6, 2023


An individual can have difficulty breathing due to various systemic diseases. The patient feels uncomfortable obtaining the air inside the lungs. Some people have difficulty breathing for a short span, while others have for a term until the systemic condition is dealt with. It can be noticed both in adults and children. The rate of airflow decreases during inspiration and expiration. The pulmonary causes of breathing difficulty include asthma, COPD, and pulmonary embolism. The extrapulmonary causes include carbon monoxide poisoning, sudden blood loss, and obesity. The acute causes of breathing difficulty include smoking, environmental pollutants, and anaphylaxis.

What Are the Signs of Breathing Difficulties in a Person?

The person experiences a struggle to get enough oxygen. The signs of breathing difficulty must be noticed earlier and treated appropriately. The few signs of difficulty breathing are as follows;

  • Respiratory Rate - The number of breaths per minute increases due to breathing difficulty. It shows that the lung is unable to utilize enough oxygen.

  • Nasal Flaring - The nostrils flare up during inhalation and exhalation. It is due to the excess effort taken during breathing. If there is a wide opening of the nostrils, consult a medical professional immediately.

  • Wheezing - The tightening of the air passages called bronchi makes the person more difficult to breathe. A hissing sound is heard as the person gasps for breath. It occurs due to a lack of air supply to the lungs.

  • Color Changes - The area surrounding the lips shows a blue tint. The inner lining of the lips and the fingernails appear blue due to the oxygen scarcity in the bloodstream. The skin color becomes very pale and gray.

  • Abnormal Sounds - Whenever the patient with a respiratory disorder takes a breath, a mild sound is heard prominently. It occurs during the opening of airways (bronchial tubes) in the lungs. A grunting sound lasts for a few seconds during each breathing cycle.

  • Chest Appearance - During each breathing cycle, the outer portion of the chest appears to collapse behind the breastbone or under the neck. It gives a sinking appearance during inspiration. The chest retractions are observed under the muscles of the ribs. It arises when the individual attempts to bring more airflow.

  • Sweating - The skin appears colder than usual, especially in the forehead region. There is excessive sweating in the body. This condition occurs due to an increase in the respiratory rate.

  • Posture - The individual feels difficulty breathing while sitting in a straight position. So the individual changes the posture and leans forward during breathing. This is a sign of respiratory or lung collapse and is a serious condition.

What Are the Symptoms of Breathing Difficulty?

The unnoticed symptoms can eventually end in a heart attack. Take necessary measures to avoid such conditions. The symptoms of breathing difficulty are as follows;

  • The patient may have a fever due to respiratory illness.

  • The patient experiences difficulty or pressure in the chest area.

  • There is an uncomfortable feeling of strain in the throat.

  • A loud and dry cough continues for weeks.

  • The patient is unable to maintain a lying position and wants to sit due to shortness of breath. It also interferes with sleep during the night.

What Are the Lung Conditions Associated With Breathing Difficulty?

Certain lung conditions result in difficulty breathing. They are as follows;

  • Asthma - It involves the narrowing and obstruction of the bronchial tubes. It triggers wheezing and causes asthma. The asthmatic patient has trouble breathing due to mucus production.

  • Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disorder (COPD) - It affects the respiratory tract and involves the bronchi (airways) and alveoli. The damage to the lung tissue results in inflammation of the lungs. The individual with chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder has persistent breathing difficulty.

  • Pulmonary Embolism - The clot lodged in the main artery of the lungs (pulmonary artery) produces hypertension and results in pulmonary embolism. It causes shortness of breath and must be treated in the emergency room. There is an abnormal heart rate, and the patient loses consciousness.

What Are the Heart Conditions Associated With Breathing Difficulty?

Oxygen is essential for the normal heart to pump blood. There are a few cardiac conditions that affect breathing. They are as follows;

  • Coronary Artery Disease (CAD) - It occurs due to the narrowing of arteries supplying blood to the heart. The decreased blood flow causes breathing troubles.

  • Congestive Heart Failure (CHF) - In congestive heart failure the pumping efficiency of the heart is reduced due to weak cardiac muscles. This lowers oxygen distribution and results in breathing difficulty.

How to Know What Is Causing the Breathing Difficulty?

  • X-rays - Since the breathing trouble is due to the lungs, any abnormality can be found using the radiographic image. It covers the airways, lungs, and bones like ribs.

  • Echocardiogram (ECG) - The sound waves are used to observe the thickening of the heart tissue and the clot in a blood vessel (aorta). The abnormal functioning of the heart valves can also be observed using an echocardiogram.

  • Pulmonary Function Test - The breathing condition and the efficiency of the lungs can be determined using a pulmonary function test. It is used to investigate the weakness of breathing muscles in individuals with respiratory disorders. The level of gasses (oxygen and carbon dioxide) present in the blood can be calculated during inhalation and exhalation.

The patient should consult a doctor when;

  • Sudden onset of shortness of breath.

  • Inability to perform physical activities due to breathing difficulties.

  • Nausea.

  • Excess chest pain.

  • Breathing difficulty due to changes in posture, especially while lying down.

  • Abnormal swelling in the ankles.

  • A change in the breathing pattern.

What Are the Treatment Methods for Breathing Difficulty?

  • Medication - The drugs are prescribed by the medical professional to treat systemic diseases. Bronchodilators are usually preferred for respiratory illnesses. It reduces inflammation and relieves breathing difficulty.

  • Oxygen Therapy - In severe cases of difficulty breathing, artificial machines are used to provide oxygen. In hospitals, the oxygen is delivered in chambers. Portable oxygen machines can also be used in the home.


The patient with excess physical exertion undergoes difficulty breathing. High altitude or over-exercise, or a stuffy nose due to a cold infection can also cause breathing difficulty. However, these are transient conditions, and the body tries to recover itself. But the medical conditions must be treated. Have proper ventilation in the living room and observe the vital signs periodically. Try to avoid air pollutants in the surroundings.

Frequently Asked Questions


What Is the Most Common Cause of Difficulty in Breathing?

Breathing difficulty can be caused in a person mainly due to asthma, pulmonary embolism, chronic obstructive pulmonary syndrome, congestive heart failure, and coronary artery diseases. All these hearts and pulmonary conditions cause a person breathlessness or shortness of breath. Therefore, a person suffering from these conditions must take proper measures and get regular follow-ups with the doctor.


Which Diseases Cause Difficulty in Breathing?

Breathing difficulty is caused due to various systemic diseases. For example, lung diseases associated with breathing difficulty include chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder (COPD), asthma, and pulmonary embolism. Also, certain heart diseases, such as congestive heart failure (CHF) and coronary heart disease (CHD), can cause breathing issues.


What Are the Three Types of Shortness of Breath?

Different types of shortness of breath include orthopnea, trepopnea, and platypnea. 
Orthopnea is when a person feels shortness of breath while lying down. 
Trepopnea occurs when a person lies down on a specific side. 
Platypnea is when a person feels breath shortening while standing. It is a rare condition.


What Tests Should Be Done for Shortness of Breath?

Shortness of breath is evaluated by X-rays, pulmonary function tests, and echocardiogram. Chest X-rays detect trouble in the lungs and airway passage, whereas an echocardiogram is used to observe the abnormal functioning of the heart valves. In addition, pulmonary function tests are also performed to check the efficiency of the lungs and the patient's breathing condition.


Can Shortness of Breath Cause Death?

Shortness of breath can cause death due to heart disease and other conditions. For example, shortness of breath can be a symptom of pulmonary embolism or heart attack, which may be fatal if not treated timely. Therefore, a person with short breath symptoms must consult a doctor for medical advice.


What Are the First Signs of Lung Problems?

The initial signs of lung problems include high fever due to respiratory distress, congestion, pressure in the chest, dry and prolonged cough, and shortness of breath in lying posture, especially at night. Other symptoms may include sweating, wheezing, nasal flaring, blue lip tint, or color change.


How Do Doctors Fix a Collapsed Lung?

Doctors use bronchodilators to treat respiratory diseases and other medications for related systemic conditions. In severe cases of breathing disorders, a doctor can also give oxygen therapy to a person in the hospital or at home. This therapy is used to deliver oxygen directly into the chambers.


What Heart Conditions Cause Shortness of Breath?

Heart conditions can cause shortness of breath when the arteries supplying blood to the heart become narrow and blood flow decreases. In addition, in situations like congestive heart failure, the heart muscles become weak and affect the heart's pumping efficiency. The condition leads to low oxygen distribution causing breathing difficulties and fatigue.


How Do I Know if My Breathlessness Is Heart-Related?

Breathlessness is heart-related when a person finds it difficult to lie down or get involved in physical activities, which leads to shortness of breath. A person may also wake up at night to catch their breath. Sometimes, a person may feel tired after an excursion due to fatigue-related heart problems causing breathlessness.


Why Do I Feel Breathless All the Time?

A person can feel breathlessness all the time due to various reasons. Examples include- Anemia, poorly managed asthma, lung damage due to smoking, and coronary obstructive pulmonary. Shortness of breath can more often be a symptom of lung or heart problems.


What Are the Signs of an Unhealthy Heart?

Signs of an unhealthy heart include left shoulder pain, irregular heart rate, chest discomfort, lack of stamina, heart burns, and swollen feet. In addition, various heart conditions, like congestive heart disease and coronary heart disease, produce signs like difficulty breathing and shortness of breath.


Does Anxiety Cause Shortness of Breath?

Anxiety can cause shortness of breath by increasing a person's heart rate. Shortness of breath is a widespread symptom of anxiety issues in a person as it makes them more anxious and restless. The condition gets normal when the anxiety attack subsides, but this condition may not be very harmful.
Dr. Nagaraj
Dr. Nagaraj



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