Surprising Causes of Breathlessness

Medically Reviewed by Nayana Ambardekar, MD on August 14, 2022

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: Coughing, 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.

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 prevents your nerves and muscles from “talking” to each other like they should. As a result, the muscles throughout your body get weak.

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.

Show Sources


UpToDate: “Patient Information: Shortness of Breath (dyspnea)(Beyond the Basics).”

NHS: “Shortness of breath,” Patient Information: Pneumonia in Adults: Beyond the Basics.”

National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute: “What Is Iron-Deficiency Anemia?”

Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America: “Asthma,” “Allergens and Allergic Asthma,” “Asthma Treatment.”

American College of Cardiology: “Breathing Problems: How To Control Stress.”

McKechnie, B. Dynamic Chiropractic, Feb. 11, 1994.

Mayo Clinic: “Pneumonia,” “Pulmonary Embolism,” Myasthenia Gravis.”

Myasthenia Gravis Foundation of America: “What Is Myasthenia Gravis?”

Canadian Cancer Society: “Pleural Effusion.”

CDC: “Parasites—Hookworm.”

Saint Luke’s Health System: “Understanding Hookworm.”

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