6 Breathing Problems You Shouldn’t Ignore

It’s easy to blame your age or joke that you’re out of shape if you have trouble catching your breath. But breathing problems shouldn’t be ignored. They’re sometimes the sign of a serious health problem.

Here are some symptoms that your doctor will want to know about and what they might mean.


A thick, wet cough can mean you have a cold or the flu. But if you also feel short of breath, it can be a sign of another condition, such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD.)

People with COPD have airways that are inflamed, clogged with mucus, or don’t work as well as they used to. Smoking is the biggest cause of the condition, but breathing secondhand smoke, polluted air, or toxic chemicals can also hurt your airways.

A morning cough can be an early sign of COPD. In severe cases, you may also notice weight loss or swelling in your ankles, feet, or legs.


A high-pitched whistling sound when you breathe in or out means that your airways have narrowed. This could be due to asthma, but it can also be because of an infection or allergic reaction.

Wheezing can also signal that you inhaled something by mistake and it’s stuck in your airway.

Fast, Shallow Breathing

If you’re stressed or very anxious, you’ll take faster, more shallow breaths than normal. This is part of your body’s “fight or flight” response, but if it goes on too long, it can lead to what’s called hyperventilation, or “over breathing.” It makes you feel like you can’t get enough air.

If stress or anxiety often affects your breathing, you should talk to your doctor. You can try treatments for anxiety or learn healthy ways to handle your stress so it won’t make you feel short of breath.

You Get Easily Winded When You’re Active

This could be a sign of anemia, a problem that happens when you don’t have enough iron. You need iron to help your blood carry oxygen throughout your body. If you’re not getting enough, it can make you feel short of breath or have chest pain when you exercise. You may also feel run down, weak, or hear a pounding in your ears.

It’s common to have low iron, especially for women or vegetarians and vegans. The problem is usually easy to treat, though -- you can eat more iron-rich foods (like lean meat, beans, or dark, leafy greens) or take an iron supplement. Your doctor can help you figure out the best fix for you.


Sudden Shortness of Breath

It’s normal to get out of breath if you’re more active than usual. But if you feel winded for no reason or all of a sudden, don’t brush it off. It could be a sign there’s a problem with your airways or heart.

For instance, an asthma attack can make it hard to get enough air into your lungs. Shortness of breath that comes out of the blue can also signal a problem with how your heart beats or pumps blood. If that happens to you, get medical help right away.

Chest Pain

If your chest hurts when you breathe in and out, it doesn’t always mean that you’ve pulled a muscle. Sometimes this is a sign of an infection, such as pneumonia. It can also be a symptom of a heart problem.

Chest pain after a workout or stressful event can be due to angina, in which the muscles of your heart don’t get enough blood. Your doctor will want to know if you have those symptoms, so he can test you to see if the problem is likely to lead to other health conditions, like a heart attack.

If you have chest pain lasts longer than 15 minutes or spreads to other parts of your body, or if you feel nauseous, sweaty, or cough up blood, you may be having a heart attack. Call 911 right away.

WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by Nayana Ambardekar, MD on August 12, 2018



NHS Choices: “Shortness of Breath,” “Chest Pain.”

Mayo Clinic: “Wheezing.”

National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute: “What Is COPD?”

National Sleep Foundation: “COPD and Difficulty Breathing.”

Victoria State Government/Better Health Channel: “Breathing to Reduce Stress.”

American Academy of Sleep Medicine: “Sleep Apnea – Overview & Facts.”

American Society of Hematology: “Iron-Deficiency Anemia.”

© 2018 WebMD, LLC. All rights reserved.