Breathing Problems You Shouldn’t Ignore

Medically Reviewed by Carol DerSarkissian, MD on August 19, 2022

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

The symptoms below, especially if they happen for no apparent reason or don’t go away, are often a sign that it’s time to see your health care provider to get checked out.


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.


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.

Fast, Shallow Breathing

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.

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, 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.

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 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.

Chest Pain

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, you may be having a heart attack. Call 911 right away.

Show Sources


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.”

UpToDate: “Coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19).”

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