Surprising Causes of Breathlessness

Medically Reviewed by Zilpah Sheikh, MD on January 10, 2024
6 min read

If you feel winded without even breaking a sweat, heart or lung disease could be to blame, but they’re not the only causes. Some health problems that don’t seem related to your lungs can make it hard to breathe.

Red blood cells help carry oxygen throughout your body. Iron is key to this process, but sometimes you don’t get enough in your food or your body has trouble absorbing it. This can lead to a condition called anemia.

Warning signs: Besides shortness of breath and chest pain, you may feel tired, weak, and dizzy. Some people get pale skin and cold hands and feet.

What helps? Your doctor may suggest you eat more iron-rich foods (lean meats, beans, dark leafy greens), take supplements, or get more vitamin C, which helps your body absorb more iron. People with severe anemia may need a transfusion of red blood cells. Learn more about anemia treatments.

When you’re stressed or worried, the muscles that help you breathe tighten. This makes you breathe faster than normal. You may feel like you’re not getting enough air, which can make you panic and make your breathing even shallower.

Warning signs: Sweating, chest pain, feeling faint. Some people feel like they have a lump in their throat.

What helps? Try to stay calm. Sit or lie down and relax your shoulders as much as you can. Breathe in through your nose for 4 seconds, and out through pursed lips (like you’re blowing out a candle) for 8. This can help bring your breath back to normal. Watch a video on breathing exercises for anxiety.

Pollen, mold, and other allergens do more than cause itchy eyes and a runny nose. They can also irritate the airways in your lungs. This can trigger an asthma attack and make it hard for you to take normal breaths.

Warning signs: Besides shortness of breath, you might have:

  • Vomiting
  • Hives or rash
  • Coughing, sneezing, or runny nose
  • Watery eyes
  • Tightness in the throat
  • Trouble swallowing or swelling of your tongue
  • Dizziness
  • Fatigue
  • Wheezing
  • Chest tightness. 

Symptoms may last a few minutes or several days.

What helps? An inhaler can help relax the airways right away. Long-term medicines will stop you from reacting as much to your allergy triggers. Read more on allergic asthma treatments.

It might feel like someone is sitting on your chest or you can't get enough air in or out. You take short breaths to try to get as much in.

Asthma is one of the most common lung diseases. It can be triggered by something you're allergic to, like pollen, or from an irritant in the air, like smoke. Stress, exercise, or even a change in the weather can set it off.

Warning signs: In addition to shortness of breath, it can cause:

  • Coughing
  • Tightness in the chest
  • Wheezing

What helps? To keep it under control, work with your doctor to create a treatment plan. First, avoid all triggers except exercise, which is important for your overall health.

You can try two kinds of medicines. One is for long-term control and the other is for quick relief.

If germs come into your body through your nose and mouth, they can travel to your lungs and cause an infection. This is called pneumonia. Anyone can get it, but you’re at higher risk if your immune system is weak, you have a lung disease like asthma, or you smoke.

Warning signs: Chest pain, fever, chills, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, chest pain. You may also bring up thick mucus when you cough.

What helps? The problem usually gets better with antibiotics. But some people need to go into the hospital for treatments that help their lungs fully heal. Find out what to expect with pneumonia treatment.

You can catch this parasite by walking barefoot through infected soil or by drinking or eating food that has hookworm eggs in it. Once hookworms get inside you, they grow in your intestines and feed on your blood. Over time, that makes your body have fewer red blood cells.

Warning signs: Weakness, feeling tired, stomach pain, diarrhea, weight loss. If a child has hookworm, their physical and mental growth may be slowed.

What helps? Hookworms are easy to treat. Your doctor will prescribe a few days of medicine that gets rid of the worms. Learn more about hookworms and hookworm infection.

It’s a problem with your immune system, called an autoimmune disorder. It disrupts communication between your muscles and nerves, causing your muscles to receive fewer nerve signals. The result is muscle weakness that worsens with time and activity.

Warning signs: Many people first show symptoms of it in their eyes. You may notice a drooping eyelid or double vision. Other signs may be trouble with speaking, swallowing, or smiling, feeling tired, and weakness in your arms and legs.

What helps? For a few people, symptoms go away on their own. But most need drugs to get your nerves and muscles “talking” again. Some people feel better if doctors remove their thymus gland, a central part of the immune system. Get more information on myasthenia gravis.

Some types of cancer cause fluid to build up in the space between your lungs and chest wall. This can make it painful to take a deep breath.

Warning signs: Feeling like there’s a weight on your chest, coughing, fever. You may also feel rundown and tired.

What helps: Your doctor could prescribe a drug that eases swelling or helps your body get rid of extra fluid. In some cases, they’ll need to remove the fluid and treat the area so it doesn’t fill again. Read more about what causes fluid around your lungs.

Your heart works hard for you your whole life. But sometimes its rhythm gets off-kilter. When it skips a beat or flutters in an unusual way, it's known as atrial fibrillation (AFib). The upper chambers of your heart quiver, and it can become less effective at pumping blood. This can lead to blood clots, stroke, and heart failure.

Warning signs: When you have AFib, you'll notice some other symptoms besides shortness of breath.

  • Fatigue
  • Rapid or irregular heartbeat
  • Dizziness
  • Weakness
  • Anxiety
  • Faintness
  • Sweating
  • Chest pains

What helps? Doctors can treat your AFib with medication, but you can also keep it in check with some lifestyle changes, such as drinking less coffee.

It's a type of lung disease that mainly involves two conditions: long-term bronchitis and emphysema. It's generally caused by smoking.

Over time, your lung tissue gets damaged, and you find it harder to draw air in and out of your lungs.

Warning signs: Some other signs of COPD are:

  • Coughing
  • Frequent respiratory infections
  • Blue lips or fingernails
  • Fatigue
  • Too much phlegm or mucus
  • Wheezing

What helps? COPD can be managed with medication, but there's no cure, and it gets worse over time. A change in lifestyle, including exercise and eating right, can help. You may need doses of extra oxygen from a tank or another device. Your doctor might recommend surgery to repair your damaged lungs.

If you've been smoking for a while, it shouldn't be a surprise if you can't breathe as well. Of the many health problems that come with tobacco, lung disease is at the top.

But you may not realize that when you stop lighting up, you can have short stints where you can't catch your breath.

Warning signs: As you smoke, you damage your lungs. It can take a while for them to heal once you've stopped. Aside from trouble breathing, you can have:

  • Craving for cigarettes or nicotine
  • Intense hunger
  • Coughing
  • Headaches
  • Trouble concentrating
  • Constipation
  • Fatigue
  • Sore throat
  • Trouble sleeping

What helps? After you put out your last cigarette, your ability to breathe normally should return in 1 to 9 months. It depends on how long and heavily you smoked.

Don't ignore your breathing troubles or put off getting help. Your body is trying to tell you something important. Get in touch with your doctor to find the source of the problem and learn how to get relief. Once you've got a diagnosis, you'll be one step closer to breathing easier.