Shortness of Breath (Dyspnea) – Causes and More

Dyspnea, also called as shortness of breath, is a abnormal feeling or breathlessness where you may not be able to take a deep breath or having trouble breathing. This is a symptom that can be associated with many different conditions, like  heart failure, asthma and lung diseases.

What is dyspnea (shortness of breath)?

When you feel like you can’t get sufficient air into your lungs, it is called as shortness of breath. Doctors call this as frightening feeling dyspnea. It can be a sign of many different health complications. You might describe it as having a tight feeling in your chest or having difficulty in breathing deeply.

Shortness of breath is usually a symptom of heart and lung complications. But it can also be a sign of other conditions like asthmaallergies or anxiety.  Energetic exercise or having a cold can also make you feel breathless.

Is dyspnea dangerous?

Sometimes, shortness of breath can be a sign of a life-threatening or fatal medical condition. Call your doctor if you immediately:

  • Suddenly have trouble breathing.
  • Have severe breathlessness (can’t catch your breath).
  • Still having breathlessness after 30 minutes of rest.

Who is affected by shortness of breath?

As it has several causes, dyspnea is very common. Anyone can experience it, but it happens more often in people with:

  • Anemia (low level of red blood cells).
  • Asthma.
  • Anxiety.
  • Heart or lung problems.
  • History of smoking.
  • Infections.
  • Poor fitness.
  • Severe obesity.

What causes shortness of breath?

Many different medical disorders can lead to dyspnea. The most common causes are lung and heart conditions. Normal breathing depends on these organs to transport oxygen to your body.

Shortness of breath may be acute, lasting just for some days or less. Other times, it is chronic, lasting more than three to six months.

What causes ongoing shortness of breath?

Conditions that may lead to chronic dyspnea or breathlessness:

  • Asthma: Narrowing of the airways caused by asthma can make it feel hard to breathe.
  • Heart failure: During a heart failure, blood can’t fill and empty the heart properly. This condition may lead to the fluid accumulation in your lungs, making it feel breathless.
  • Lung disease: Damage to lung tissue from diseases like tobacco smoking-related chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) can lead to shortness of breath. Tumors, such as lung cancer, can also cause dyspnea.
  • Obesity: Being extreme overweight can strain your lungs and make it hard to breathe.
  • Poor fitness: Being out of shape due to sedentary life style or illness can make you feel breathless.

What causes acute dyspnea or shortness of breath?

Factors that may lead to acute (subsides within a week or so) shortness of breath include:

  • Allergies: People often feel shortness of breath when they have an allergic reaction.
  • Anxiety: Anxiety can lead to hyperventilation (fast, heavy breathing).
  • Choking: A blockage or obstruction in your throat can make it difficult for air to move in and out of your lungs. Inhaling food or an object into your lungs also blocks the normal flow of air.
  • Pulmonary embolism: This occurs when you have a blood clot in your lungs. This condition is a medical emergency.
  • Heart attack: A obstruction that stops blood flow to the heart can lead to frightening dyspnea. If you feel this symptom along with other heart attack symptoms, call your doctor immediately.
  • Infection:    infections such as, bronchitis or pneumonia may produce mucous that obstructs airflow to parts of the lungs. This can interrupt oxygen diffusion to the blood.
  • Injury: A broken rib can make breathing painful and difficult. Bleeding and anemia can reduce the number of red blood cells, which lowers the amount of oxygen carried in the blood.
  • Medication: Certain medicines can result in the tight feeling in the chest. Statins (medicines that lowers cholesterol or fats in the blood) and beta blockers given for hypertension in asthmatic people may lead to this symptom.
  • Extreme temperatures. Being very hot or very cold can make you feel like you are having difficulty breathing.

How can my doctor manage shortness of breath?

Your doctor will help you manage breathlessness by first doing identification and then proper treatment of the condition causing difficulty breathing. Depending on the fundamental condition, your treatment may include:

  • Exercise: Making you physically active can strengthen your heart and lungs. Better overall health can help you feel less breathless during activity. Even with a heart or lung condition, cardiovascular rehabilitation might help. The provider might also suggest that you learn breathing techniques.
  • Medication: Inhaled drugs called as bronchodilators can relax your airways in asthma and in COPD. Medication to subside pain or anxiety can ease breathlessness.
  • Oxygen therapy: Getting extra oxygen through a mask or tube in the nostrils can make your breathing more comfortable. This is only correct when the blood oxygen level is measured by a healthcare professional and shown to be low.

How will a doctor determine what is causing my shortness of breath?

Tests might include:

  • Physical exam: This would cover things like measuring your temperature and listening to your chest. A fever could be an indication of an infection.
  • Pulse oximetry: A provider uses a finger sensor to see how much oxygen you have in your blood.
  • Chest X-rayCT scans or other special imaging tests: These would suggest a cause of dyspnea if you don’t already have a diagnosis of a chronic condition.
  • Blood tests: These test indicate anemia, infections and other conditions.
  • Lung function tests: These tests show how well you are breathing.
  • Cardiopulmonary exercise testing: These tests indicate the volume of oxygen inhaled and carbon dioxide exhaled during exercise performed on treadmills or stationary bikes.

How can I ease or relieve shortness of breath?

You may prevent or relieve breathlessness on your own by following some steps.These helpful steps may include:

  • Avoiding inhaling chemicals that can irritate your lungs, like paint fumes, pollen and car exhaust.
  • Practicing breathing and/or relaxation techniques to improve your function of breathing.
  • Stopping smoking, if you smoke. Don’t begin to smoke if you don’t now smoke.
  • Reaching and maintaining a healthy weight.
  • Avoiding activity or exercise in times when temperatures are very hot or very cold, or when the humidity is high. If you have lung disease, observe air pollution (ozone) alerts issued on radio and TV.
  • Ensure that your equipment is in good working state when you use oxygen.

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