Dyspnea (Shortness of Breath)

What Is Dyspnea?

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 throw a kink in 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 fever or cough, call your doctor to ask whether you might have COVID-19, the illness caused by the new coronavirus.

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

Dyspnea Symptoms

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
  • Like you can’t breathe (suffocation)

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.

Dyspnea Causes

Many conditions can cause shortness of breath. The most common causes of short-term dyspnea 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

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

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.

Dyspnea Diagnosis

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 (EKG). 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 Treatment

Breathing and relaxation methods may help. But your dyspnea treatment will depend on what's causing your shortness of breath. 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.

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Living With Dyspnea

You often can build up your lung strength with exercise. Ask your doctor what activities are right for you. If you smoke, quit. Smoking is bad for your breathing and your overall health.

Try to stay away from polluted air, like chemical fumes or secondhand smoke, and from extremes in temperature. If you’re traveling to a place that’s at a high elevation, take plenty of time to get used to it.

When to See Your Doctor

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

When to Go to the ER

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.
WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD on April 03, 2020

Sources

SOURCES:

UpToDate: "Patient education: Shortness of breath (dyspnea) (Beyond the Basics)." 

Wonderopolis: "How Many Breaths Do You Take Each Day?"

American Family Physician: "Shortness of Breath."

American Thoracic Society: "Breathlessness."

Mayo Clinic: “Shortness of breath.”

Merck Manual: “Stridor.”

University of Rochester Medical Center: “Lung cancer: Managing shortness of breath.”

CDC: “Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19).”

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