Tests to Diagnose Shortness of Breath

Each year, between 25% and 50% of people in the U.S. see a doctor for shortness of breath. You may have felt it, too -- the uncomfortable feeling you get when you can't seem to get enough air.

It’s a common symptom, and one that's usually harmless -- the result of a tough workout or a stressful day. But it can also be a sign that you have another health problem, such as anxiety, a lung infection like pneumonia, asthma, or heart disease.

How do you find out what’s going on? Your doctor can do some basic tests to help you get to the bottom of your shortness of breath.

When Should I See a Doctor?

If shortness of breath keeps you from doing your regular daily activities, that’s reason enough to call the doctor. But definitely schedule an appointment if you have trouble breathing along with any of these symptoms:

  • Shortness of breath when you’re resting or lying down
  • Fever, chills, night sweats
  • Fast, fluttering heartbeats
  • Wheezing

Tests to Diagnose Shortness of Breath

At your appointment, your doctor will ask a few questions about your medical history and do a physical exam. This might include listening to your heart and lungs for signs of congestion, murmur, or anything else unusual.

The results of the exam may lead her to order a few tests to help figure out what else might be causing your breathing problems.

Chest X-ray. It can show the doctor signs of conditions such as pneumonia or other heart and lung problems. It’s painless and easy -- a radiology technologist can do one in about 15 minutes.

Oxygen test. Also called pulse oximetry, this helps your doctor measure how much oxygen is in your blood. She’ll place a clothespin-like sensor on your finger, which uses light to detect oxygen. Other than the pressure of the sensor, you won’t feel anything.

Electrocardiography (EKG). You might get this test in your doctor’s office or a hospital. A technician will attach small electrodes to your chest with gel or tape, and a machine will measure the electrical impulses that make your heart beat. An EKG can show your doctor if blood flow to the heart is impaired.

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Lung function test. This measures how well your lungs work and lets your doctor know if something is blocking or keeping them from using air properly. It can also show how well your lungs can transport and use oxygen. One type of lung function test is called spirometry. You breathe into a mouthpiece that connects to a machine and measures your lung capacity and air flow. Your doctor may also have you stand in a box that looks like a telephone booth to check your lung capacity. This is called plethysmography. Each of these tests helps your doctor diagnose problems such as asthma, emphysema, or COPD.

Blood test. A doctor or nurse will use a needle to take blood from a vein in your arm and send it to a lab for tests. The results can tell them whether or not conditions such as anemia or heart failure are making you short of breath.

If your shortness of breath is severe or comes with other symptoms such as confusion, chest pain, jaw pain, or pain down your arm, call 911 right away.

WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by Nayana Ambardekar, MD on August 13, 2018

Sources

SOURCES:

Cleveland Clinic Center for Continuing Education: “Dyspnea.”

Johns Hopkins Medicine: “Shortness of Breath.”

Merck Manuals: “Shortness of Breath.”

American Lung Association: “Diagnosing and Treating Shortness of Breath.”

Chest Foundation: “Tests and Diagnosis.”

Cleveland Clinic: “Chest X-Ray” and "Body Plethysmography (Pulmonary Function Test)

American Academy of Family Physicians: “Diagnostic Evaluation of Dyspnea.”

Mayo Clinic: “Electrocardiogram (ECG or EKG).”

Johns Hopkins Medicine Health Library: “Pulmonary Function Tests.”

Medscape: "Pulmonary Function Tests."

 

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