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Shortness of Breath

Causes, Possible Conditions, Questions & Related Topics

If you are experiencing shortness of breath, you may want to consider getting a COVID-19 testWhile a COVID vaccine is not currently available, getting a COVID test is the best way to prevent the spread of the virus.

Top 11 Causes of Shortness of Breath

1. Allergies

Allergens like dust, pollen, and pet dander can trigger shortness of breath due to the way they cause the throat and airways to become narrow and swollen.[1] People who suffer from allergies will often experience shortness of breath when exposed to these and other allergens.

2. Exercise

Intense and strenuous exercise may cause a temporary shortness of breath, such as climbing stairs and running. Shortness of breath caused by exercise may be improved by exercising regularly and building up stamina.[2]

3. Blocked Throat or Airway

Choking can cause shortness of breath due to the way a blockage in the throat makes it difficult for air to move in and out of the lungs. The inhalation of food, liquids, or other objects into the lungs may also block airflow to cause shortness of breath.[3]

4. Injury

A blow to the chest and having the “wind knocked out of you” can lead to shortness of breath due to the way this can injure the lungs or the airway. Shortness of breath caused by an injury may be accompanied by pain, dizziness, and loss of consciousness.[4]

5. Anxiety

An anxiety or panic attack can lead to rapid, heavy breathing and shortness of breath.[3] Shortness of breath caused by anxiety or panic may be accompanied by rapid heartbeat, sweating, and chest pain.

6. Certain Drugs and Medications

Shortness of breath is a side effect of several medications including beta-blockers, statins, ACE inhibitors, and chemotherapy drugs.[3] Certain illicit drugs such as cocaine and methamphetamine may also cause shortness of breath.[5]

7. Infection

Infections like bronchitis and pneumonia can increase the body’s mucous production to block the airway and trigger shortness of breath.[3] Infections can also increase the amount of acid in the bloodstream to cause rapid breathing and shortness of breath.[6]

8. High Altitude

Being at a high altitude such as on a hill or mountain can lead to shortness of breath due to the presence of less oxygen in the air.[7] Being on an airplane can also lead to shortness of breath due to lower oxygen levels, and trigger other symptoms including lightheadedness and difficulty concentrating.

9. Heart disease

Heart disease is a common cause of shortness of breath. Problems with your circulatory system can prevent your body from receiving oxygenated blood.[17][18] As a result, you may struggle to take deep breaths. If you've been diagnosed with heart disease and you're experiencing shortness of breath, notify your doctor right away. This may be a sign of a serious medical problem.

10. Lung disease

Chronic or acute lung disease is often responsible for breathing problems.[18] Sometimes, your symptoms may result from an infection like bronchitis.[17] These infections usually resolve with treatment. However, shortness of breath can also be a sign of a serious or incurable condition like chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). Left untreated, lung disease can sometimes be fatal. Report any new or worsening breathing problems to your doctor right away.

11. Emotional distress

Many people experience shortness of breath when they're anxious or upset.[19] These breathing difficulties can be distressing and may increase your anxiety levels, but they are usually not linked to a physical problem with your heart or lungs. Symptoms often disappear once you feel calmer.

Possible Health Conditions Related to Shortness of Breath

1. Asthma

Asthma is a chronic disease in which the airways become swollen and narrowed to cause shortness of breath, along with wheezing, coughing, and tightness in the chest. Asthma can be triggered by breathing in certain substances that lead to inflammation and swelling of the airways, such as dust, mold, pollen, and cigarette smoke. Asthma can be effectively managed and treated by avoiding known triggers, and by taking medications that reduce symptoms.[8]

2. Obesity

Extra weight can put undue strain on the chest and lungs to make breathing more difficult.[3] Excess fat tissue can also put pressure on the throat to narrow airways and cause shortness of breath. Some people with obesity may suffer from obesity hypoventilation syndrome—a condition in which poor breathing and shortness of breath can lead to lower blood oxygen levels.[9]

3. Congestive Heart Failure

Shortness of breath may be linked to congestive heart failure, which occurs when the heart is unable to pump the amount of blood needed to carry out normal bodily functions.[10] In addition to shortness of breath, people who suffer from congestive heart failure may also experience tiredness, edema (fluid buildup in the legs, ankles, and feet), and the backup of blood and fluid into the lungs. Heart failure is commonly caused by diabetes, hypertension, and coronary artery disease, and may be effectively treated with healthy lifestyle changes, medications, and surgery.[11]

4. Pneumonia

Pneumonia is a lung infection that causes the lungs to fill with pus or fluid. Shortness of breath is one of the most common symptoms of pneumonia, along with fever, chills, cough, and chest pain. Serious cases of pneumonia may lead to respiratory failure and require patients to receive oxygen therapy. Risk factors of pneumonia include smoking, having a weakened immune system, and exposure to certain pollutants and toxic fumes.[12]

5. Pulmonary Embolism

A pulmonary embolism is a sudden blockage in a lung artery that occurs when a blood clot breaks loose and travels to the lungs. Shortness of breath is a symptom of a pulmonary embolism, as well as chest pain and coughing up blood. Obesity, heart disease, and lung disease are common risk factors of a pulmonary embolism, as are pregnancy, genetics, and the use of hormone-based medications. A pulmonary embolism may be effectively treated using blood thinners and procedures that break up the blood clot in the lungs.[13]

6. Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD)

COPD is a common lung disease that causes breathing difficulty and shortness of breath. The two main forms of COPD are chronic bronchitis and emphysema. The most common causes of COPD are smoking and exposure to secondhand smoke, pollution, and certain gases and fumes. Shortness of breath associated with COPD may get worse with mild activity, and be accompanied by cough, wheezing, and fatigue. COPD cannot be cured but may be effectively managed using antibiotics, anti-inflammatory drugs, and oxygen therapy.[14]

7. Coronavirus (COVID-19)

COVID-19 is a contagious respiratory virus that causes a range of mild to severe symptoms including shortness of breath, dry cough, fever, headache, and fatigue. COVID-19 is thought to spread from person to person through respiratory droplets when an infected person talks, coughs, or sneezes.[15] Those who suffer mild symptoms of COVID-19 can recover at home, while those who suffer more severe symptoms may be hospitalized or treated using medications.[16]

8. Anemia

Iron is an essential nutrient that helps your body build red blood cells. Healthy red blood cells then supply oxygen to your organs. If your iron levels are too low, you may feel tired or have trouble catching your breath. Many different health conditions are linked to anemia. Your doctor can run tests to determine what's causing your anemia and how best to treat it. Most people with anemia recover with the treatment.[22]

9. Lung cancer

Shortness of breath can be one of the first symptoms of lung cancer.[25] If you're a current or former smoker, tell your doctor right away if you experience shortness of breath. Routine lung cancer screenings are also essential if you have a family history of lung cancer. Some genetic disorders can increase your risk of developing lung cancer, even if you don't smoke. Lung cancer is a serious illness that's often life-threatening, but early diagnosis and treatment can significantly improve your prognosis.

Questions Your Doctor May Ask About Shortness of Breath

  • When did you start noticing shortness of breath?
  • Are you experiencing any other symptoms with shortness of breath?
  • How long does each bout of shortness of breath last?
  • Did you start experiencing shortness of breath after suffering an injury?
  • Do you smoke, or are you frequently exposed to secondhand smoke?
  • How often do you experience shortness of breath?
  • Have you recently been exposed to anyone with COVID-19?
  • Did you recently attend a large event or gathering where lots of people were present?

Shortness of Breath May Also be Known as:

  • Dyspnea
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Breathlessness
  • Breathing difficulty
  • Labored breathing


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