Feeling Short of Breath

Feeling short of breath can be a concerning, scary feeling. Medically, feeling short of breath is known as dyspnea. It is described by tightness in the chest, breathlessness, and the feeling of not being able to get enough air. Here’s what you need to know about feeling short of breath.

What Causes It?

Feeling short of breath is typically caused by heart or lung conditions. It is up to your heart and your lungs to deliver the needed oxygen to your body and to remove carbon dioxide. Issues with either your heart or lungs affect your ability to breathe. In simple terms, breathing is controlled by the brain and the blood. A complex interaction between the blood and the brain occurs and oxygen levels, carbon dioxide levels, and how much hemoglobin is in the blood are “read” by the brain. If any of these levels are off, your brain tells your lungs to work differently (breathing harder, faster, deeper, etc.). This can lead to feeling short of breath or a sensation of difficulty breathing.

When Can it Occur?

This can occur while you’re walking, exercising, climbing stairs, or even when you’re doing nothing but sitting or laying down. It can happen slowly over time or it can occur suddenly. For a healthy person, intense exercise, high temperatures, being overweight, poor air quality, or higher altitudes than you’re accustomed to can cause feeling short of breath. However, non-extreme versions of all of those could be a sign that something is medically wrong.

Causes of acute shortness of breath include COPD, allergic reactions, asthma, poor air quality (including carbon monoxide poisoning), low blood pressure, heart attack or failure, pneumonia, blocked airways or choking, pulmonary embolism, enlarged heart, anemia, abnormal heartbeats, among many others. Chronic shortness of breath include many of the same causes and include abnormal heart function, obesity, and lung diseases like pleurisy, pulmonary edema, pulmonary fibrosis, pulmonary hypertension, lung cancer, croup, sarcoidosis, and tuberculosis.

What are the Symptoms?

Those with respiratory issues can feel short of breath just by doing their everyday tasks, responsibilities, and activities. Symptoms that should not be ignored include swelling of feet and/or ankles, trouble breathing when lying flat, blue fingertips, nails, and/or lips, high fever, chills, coughing or wheezing, stridor, or breathlessness that does not go away after resting for 30 or so minutes.

What are Potential Risk Factors?

You are at a higher risk of developing dyspnea if you have had prior lung diseases or issues, weak muscles, low hemoglobin, or are out of shape or are obese. If you are a smoker or are exposed to second-hand smoke you are also at a higher risk.

When Should You Call Your Doctor?

Call or visit your doctor if you are experiencing breathlessness that is not due to physical activity and the shape you are in. If you experience sudden and severe shortness of breath that is seemingly unexplained, is long-lasting, or disturbs your everyday life you should reach out to your doctor. To be safe, if you have any questions or concerns at all, you should contact your health care professional as soon as possible.