Breathing Problems You Shouldn’t Ignore

Medically Reviewed by Dany Paul Baby, MD on April 25, 2023
8 min read

It’s easy to think that you’re just out of shape if you have trouble catching your breath. But you shouldn’t ignore breathing problems. They’re sometimes a sign of a serious health problem.

Some symptoms, especially if they happen for no apparent reason or don’t go away, are things you should get checked out by a doctor.

If you have severe symptoms, such as trouble breathingor chest pain, call your doctor or 911 right away. 

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, that are clogged with mucus, or that 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 cough may also be a symptom of COVID-19. It’s usually dry but sometimes comes with mucus. This disease caused by a coronavirus can cause shortness of breath, too. If you’re diagnosed with COVID-19 and it's severe, you may need hospital care that could include medication and extra oxygen. Some people who have a very hard time getting air need help from a breathing tube connected to a machine, called a ventilator.

Some conditions that can give you a nagging cough are:

Postnasal drip. This is when mucus in your nose trickles down the back of your throat. It can happen because of things like an allergy, a virus, a sinus infection, and dust or fumes in the air.
Depending on your age, your overall health, and the cause of your postnasal drip, your doctor may recommend an OTC version of one or more of these drugs:

  • Antihistamine pills like cetirizine (Zyrtec), diphenhydramine (Benadryl), or loratadine (Claritin)
  • Decongestant pills such as phenylephrine (Sudafed PE) or pseudoephedrine (Sudafed)
  • Medicated nose sprays like azelastine (Astelin), fluticasone (Flonase), or ipratropium bromide (Atrovent)

Some other things you can do at home are:

  • Use a humidifier, or breathe the steam from a hot shower.
  • Drink plenty of fluids to thin mucus.
  • Prop up your head with pillows when you sleep so mucus doesn’t build up at the back of your throat.
  • Use a neti pot to clear out your nasal passages with a saline rinse.

Asthma. Narrowed airways in your lungs can make you cough, wheeze, or become short of breath. A type called cough-variant asthma only makes you cough. Your doctor will prescribe medications as part of a treatment plan to get your asthma under control.

Some other things you can do to feel better are:

  • Learn what triggers set off your symptoms, such as mold or pet dander, and avoid them.
  • Exercise regularly. Ask your doctor how to do it safely.
  • Stay at a healthy weight.

Acid reflux. This is when acid from your belly travels up your esophagus, the tube that connects your stomach with your mouth.

Your doctor might recommend an OTC version of a drug that reduces stomach acid, called a proton pump inhibitor. Common ones include esomeprazole (Nexium), lansoprazole (Prevacid), and omeprazole (Prilosec).

Some lifestyle changes may also ease a cough and other symptoms of acid reflux. You may want to:

  • Cut back on fatty foods, chocolate, soda, acidic juices, and alcohol.
  • Stop eating about 2 or 3 hours before you lie down to rest or sleep.
  • Raise the head of your bed about 6 to 8 inches.
  • Lose extra pounds, if you’re overweight.

If you smoke, quit.

Smoking. Over time, lighting up can give you a constant phlegmy cough. It can also make you wheeze or get short of breath.
You can start reversing the damage to your lungs by making a plan to quit:

  • Commit to a quit date.
  • Tell your loved ones that you want to kick the habit.
  • Think about healthy habits you’ll practice when you have cigarette cravings.
  • Throw out all your cigarettes.

You can also ask your doctor if they think nicotine replacement therapy might help. It comes in OTC versions like a patch, gum, and lozenges. It’s not safe for pregnant people.

A high-pitched whistling sound when you breathe in or out means 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 accident and it’s stuck in your airway.

If you’re stressed or very anxious, you’ll take faster, more shallow breaths than usual. 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, 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.

Not being fit isn't the only reason that this can happen. 

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, feel weak, or hear a pounding in your ears.

Low iron is common, especially for women, 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.

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 that 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.

Shortness of breath that lasts weeks or months could be due to medical conditions including:

Obesity. Extra weight in your chest and belly makes the muscles you use for breathing work harder. If you’re short of breath and your doctor diagnoses you with obesity, ask them to help you make a plan to get down to a healthy weight.

You might consider weight loss surgery or medication. But even if you and your doctor decide that one of those options is right for you, you’ll still need to make healthy changes in your life.
They may recommend that you:

  • Learn how to eat a balanced, nutritious diet. (They might refer you to a dietitian for help.)
  • Start a gentle walking or exercise program so you move more.
  • Look into talk therapy if emotional eating is an issue.
  • Find online support groups, where you’ll meet other people who are on a weight loss journey.

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). This is when the airways in your lungs grow narrow and inflamed, and air sacs that take in oxygen get damaged. Smoking cigarettes is the most common cause of this long-term condition. Doctors treat COPD with medication. For advanced disease, they may recommend things like extra oxygen or surgery.

Some healthy changes can help keep symptoms in check and slow the progress of COPD. The most important one: If you smoke, quit. Also consider joining a pulmonary rehab program, which can teach you about things like exercise, breathing methods, and social support. 

Keep up with all the vaccines your doctors recommend, including boosters. These help prevent infections that can make COPD symptoms flare.

Interstitial lung disease. This group of lung disorders brings on inflammation and sometimes scarring in your lungs. It can cause shortness of breath that gets worse when you’re active. It can also trigger a dry cough. Treatments include medications, pulmonary rehab, extra oxygen, and, in severe cases, a lung transplant.

As with many other conditions, these things can help you  to feel your best:

  • Talk to a dietitian to make sure your nutrition is on track.
  • Get all the vaccines your doctor recommends.
  • If you smoke, quit.
  • Ask loved ones for help when you need it, and consider joining an online support group.

Heart failure. This long-term condition happens when your heart can’t pump enough blood to the rest of your body. Along with shortness of breath, it can cause fluid to build up in other vital organs, like your lungs. Treatments for heart failure may include medication, an implanted device that keeps your heart rhythm regular, or surgery.
Lifestyle changes may ease your symptoms. Some important ones to make are:

  • Check your weight daily to be sure that fluid isn't building up in your body.
  • Cut back on sodium in your diet.
  • Ask your doctor if you need to drink less water.
  • Limit or stop drinking alcohol. Talk to your doctor about which option is best for you.
  • Stay at a healthy weight.
  • Ask your doctor for a safe exercise program.
  • Don’t smoke.

Pulmonary hypertension. This type of high affects the arteries that bring blood to your lungs. It forces your heart to work harder and brings on symptoms like trouble breathing when you move around. You may get tired easily, too. Prescription medications usually treat pulmonary hypertension, but people with severe symptoms need surgery.

Talk to your doctor about lifestyle changes that can help, like:

  • A walking or exercise program
  • A balanced diet with limited salty foods
  • Drinking less liquid
  • Avoiding or limiting alcohol
  • Quitting tobacco
  • Recommended vaccines

Avoid getting pregnant, because pulmonary hypertension can cause dangerous complications. But don’t use birth control pills, which raise blood clot risks. Talk to your doctor about a different type of birth control.

If your chest hurts when you breathe in and out, it doesn’t always mean 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 they can test you to see whether the problem is likely to lead to other health conditions, like a heart attack.

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