Dyspnea: Causes, Symptoms, and Treatment Options

Medically Reviewed by Zilpah Sheikh, MD on August 08, 2023
6 min read

When you have shortness of breath, you can't catch your breath or get enough air in your lungs. Your doctor might call it dyspnea. It can be a warning sign of a health problem that needs treatment right away.

If you're a healthy adult, you breathe in and out up to 20 times a minute. That's nearly 30,000 breaths a day. A hard workout or the common cold might change that pattern from time to time, but you should almost never feel short of breath.

If you have new shortness of breath, call 911. If you have another health condition that makes you more likely to get seriously ill and you have a feveror cough, call your doctor to ask whether you might have COVID-19.

If you have sudden, severe trouble catching your breath, call 911. This is especially true if you also have nausea or chest pain.

Dyspnea vs. shortness of breath

Dyspnea and shortness of breath mean the same thing. They are two different ways to label the same medical problem.

Dyspnea pronunciation

The way to pronounce dyspnea is [dis - pe - na].

When you have dyspnea, you might feel:

  • Out of breath
  • Tightness in your chest
  • Hungry for air (you might hear this called air hunger)
  • Unable to breathe deeply or dyspnea on exertion, the feeling of not being able to breathe deeply enough during exercise
  • Like you can't breathe (suffocation)
  • Heart palpitations
  • Wheezing
  • Coughing

It can be acute (sudden dyspnea) or chronic (long-lasting dyspnea). Acute dyspnea starts within a few minutes or hours. It can happen with other symptoms like a fever, rash, or cough. Chronic dyspnea can make you feel out of breath with everyday tasks, such as walking from room to room or standing up.

Sometimes, shortness of breath gets better or worse with certain body positions. For example, lying down flat can trigger shortness of breath in people who have certain types of heart and lung disease. Keeping track of your symptoms can help your doctor figure out what's wrong and recommend the best treatment.

Many conditions can cause shortness of breath. The most common causes of shortness of breath are:

  • Anxiety disorders
  • Asthma
  • A blood clot in your lungs, known as pulmonary embolism
  • Broken ribs
  • Excess fluid around your heart
  • Choking
  • A collapsed lung
  • Heart attacks
  • Heart failure
  • Heart rhythm problems
  • A low red blood cell count, also called anemia
  • Pneumonia and other respiratory infections
  • Pregnancy
  • A severe allergic reaction known as anaphylaxis
  • Sudden blood loss

Some of the more common causes of long-term dyspnea are:

  • Fluid around the lungs
  • Asthma
  • Unable to perform physical activities without getting tired
  • Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), including emphysema
  • Sarcoidosis, a collection of inflammatory cells in the body
  • Heart disease, including congestive heart failure
  • Inflammation of the tissue around the heart
  • High blood pressure in the lungs, also called pulmonary hypertension
  • Obesity
  • Scarring of the lungs
  • Stiff, thick, or swollen heart muscle, aka cardiomyopathy

Other things, including lung cancer and tuberculosis, can make you feel out of breath. If you have dyspnea and don't know why, see your doctor to find out.

How to tell if shortness of breath is from anxiety

Anxiety-induced shortness of breath often occurs during or immediately after periods of stress, worry, panic, or anxiety attacks. If you notice that your breathing difficulties coincide with these emotional states, it may be a sign of anxiety-related shortness of breath. If you have anxiety-related shortness of breath, you may have rapid, shallow breathing or hyperventilation. This can lead to feelings of breathlessness and a sense of not being able to catch one's breath. If you find that relaxation techniques such as deep breathing exercises, meditation, or calming activities temporarily help your shortness of breath, it may suggest that anxiety is the underlying cause.

Dyspnea during pregnancy

Shortness of breath is common during pregnancy. Because your body is adapting to pregnancy, it is normal to experience some dyspnea. However, if you experience severe or persistent shortness of breath, chest pain, or any other concerning symptoms, it is crucial to seek immediate medical attention to rule out any serious medical conditions.

The doctor will examine you and listen carefully to your lungs. You might have a lung function test, called spirometry, to measure how much air you can blow in and out of your lungs and how fast you do it. This can help diagnose asthma and COPD.

Other tests you might have include:

  • Pulse oximetry. The doctor clips a device to your finger or earlobe to measure how much oxygen is in your blood.
  • Blood tests. They can show if you have anemia or an infection and can check for a blood clot or fluid in your lungs.
  • Chest X-ray or a CT scan. They can see if you have pneumonia, a blood clot in your lung, or other lung diseases. A CT scan puts together several X-rays taken from different angles to make a complete picture.
  • Electrocardiogram. It measures the electrical signals from your heart to see if you're having a heart attack and find out how fast your heart is beating and if it has a healthy rhythm.

Dyspnea scale

Doctors use a Modified Medical Research Council (mMRC) dyspnea scale to rate the severity of your shortness of breath. The scale goes from 0 to 4, with 0 being "I only get breathless during strenuous exercise" to 4 being "I am too breathless to leave the house or I am breathless when dressing."

Breathing and relaxation methods may help. But your shortness of breath treatment will depend on what's causing your dyspnea. For example, if you have asthma, you may get an inhaler to use when you have a flare. If there's fluid in your lungs, the doctor might need to drain it. If an infection or a blood clot is making you feel short of breath, you could need medication. You also might get oxygen. If you take medications, always take them as your doctor prescribes. And if possible, try to keep up a regular exercise routine. Staying at a healthy weight and being active on a normal basis are important to overall well-being.

You often can build up your lung strength with exercise. Ask your doctor what activities are right for you. If you smoke, quitting is the ideal option to help with shortness of breath and overall health. Also, try to avoid being around secondhand smoke and other pollutants. Try not to be active in extreme temperatures such as very hot or humid or overly cold climates. If you travel somewhere with an elevation change, take time to adjust before exerting yourself. Make sure to stick to your medication and care plans carefully. And check ozone warnings before going outside to see what the air quality is like.

Shortness of breath is not a symptom to ignore. Call your doctor if your symptoms change, if your problem gets worse after you use an inhaler, or if your shortness of breath comes along with:

  • Swelling in your feet and ankles
  • Trouble breathing when you lie flat
  • High fever, chills, and cough
  • An unusual whistling sound (wheezing) when you breathe
  • A gasping sound when you breathe

Call 911 or have someone take you to the emergency room if:

  • You have severe shortness of breath that comes on suddenly.
  • Your shortness of breath comes with chest pain, nausea, or fainting.
  • Your lips or fingertips turn blue.

Dyspnea or shortness of breath is when it's difficult for you to get enough air in your lungs. If you feel tightness in your chest, wheezing, coughing, or heart palpitations, on top of not being able to breathe, you may have dyspnea. Conditions from anxiety to asthma can lead to shortness of breath, and doctors use a scale to rank how severe yours is. You shouldn't ignore this symptom, and if it comes on suddenly and severely, go to the ER right away.

  • What is the main cause of dyspnea?

There are many causes of shortness of breath as listed above, from pregnancy to heart failure to asthma.

  • What are three severe signs of dyspnea?

If your lips or fingertips are blue, there is chest pain with your shortness of breath, and it has come on suddenly, these are all signs of severe dyspnea and you should immediately go to the ER.

  • How serious is dyspnea?

Shortness of breath can be mild to severe depending on the situation. It can range from needing no treatment to being a sign of something life threatening and so should never be ignored.

  • What are the main symptoms of dyspnea?

Some of the main symptoms of dyspnea are shortness of breath, tightness in your chest, being hungry for air, and not being able to breathe deeply.