Lung Problems That Make You Short of Breath

Everyone knows what it’s like to feel breathless for a couple of minutes after you run or climb some stairs. But for some people, breathing trouble can be a sign that an issue with your lungs is keeping them from working like they should. Unlike people who get a little winded after a burst of exercise, people with a lung disease may feel breathless even with very little activity.

There are two kinds of lung problems that can cause breathing trouble. Sometimes, the lungs get stiff and it takes more work for them to expand when you breathe in. In other cases, the airways of the lungs become narrow. That makes it hard for air to leave the lungs. And when too much air stays in the lungs, you may feel short of breath.

If you have breathing problems, see your doctor. They will give you a physical exam and may do some other tests to find out the problem, such as a chest X-ray, a blood test, and special lung tests. If breathing problems come on suddenly and are severe, call 911.

Lung Problems That Affect Your Breathing

Asthma is a long-term disease that makes your airways swollen, inflamed, and narrow, so it’s hard to move air in and out of your lungs. Along with feeling short of breath, you may also wheeze, which means you make a whistle sound when you breathe. There is no cure for asthma, but treatment can help a lot. It’s important to treat symptoms when you first notice them. That means getting to the doctor.

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) may make you feel like your chest is so tight you can’t breathe. Like asthma, it can make you wheeze, too. You may cough and bring up sticky, slimy mucus. There is no cure for COPD, but there are ways to feel better. For example, your doctor may want you to use an inhaler, do breathing exercises, and learn techniques to help you breathe more easily.

Pneumonia is an infection in one or both lungs, caused by bacteria or viruses. It irritates the air sacs in your lungs, and they fill up with fluid. Signs that you may have it include breathing trouble, fever, chills, and a cough with mucus. Pneumonia can make you feel very tired, and it can take quite a while to feel better. The doctor will give you antibiotics to kill the germs, and it’s very important to finish the medicine even if you feel better.


Pulmonary embolism means that something, usually a blood clot, has blocked an artery in one of your lungs. It’s a serious problem that needs medical help right away. Signs of pulmonary embolism are fast breathing, a fast heart rate, and possibly a sharp pain in your chest when you breathe in. Other signs are fever, dizziness, and leg pain or swelling.

Pulmonary fibrosis is scarring in the lungs that makes it hard to get enough oxygen into your body. Usually, the cause is not known, which is called idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis. Sometimes it is caused by other diseases, your genes, or when you breathe in asbestos or other industrial dusts for a long time. Signs of this problem include shortness of breath, even at rest, and a dry cough. You’ll need to see your doctor to find out how you can feel better and breathe more easily.

Help Yourself Breathe Easier

Your doctor may suggest medicine and other treatments for your breathing problem. But you can also take steps to help yourself:

  • Take your medicine just as the doctor prescribes it.
  • Ask your doctor about making an “action plan” that tells you what to do if you have sudden breathlessness.
  • Ask about ways to slow down your breathing and take deeper breaths.
  • Try not to rush around so much.
  • Sit in front of a fan.
WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by Nayana Ambardekar, MD on June 27, 2020



Merck Manual Consumer Version: “Shortness of Breath.”

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

American Thoracic Society Patient Information Series: “Breathlessness.”

National Institute on Aging, Age Page: “Understanding Lung Problems—Make Each Breath Count.”

Mayo Clinic: “Pulmonary Embolism.”

Mayo Clinic: “Interstitial Lung Disease.”

Pulmonary Fibrosis Foundation: “About PF.”

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