Why Can't I Breathe?

Medically Reviewed by Poonam Sachdev on April 28, 2022
4 min read

It's not a surprise to find yourself short of breath after a workout. But are you out of air when you're at rest, or even lying down? If so, it might be a sign of a larger problem. You need to get it checked out by your doctor right away.

Shortness of breath is a symptom of a lot of medical conditions. Watch out for other issues that may go along with your airflow problem.

Your breathing trouble could be an allergy to a food, pet, or something in the air. Your immune system -- the body's defense against germs -- treats those things like a foreign invader that needs to be fought off.

Besides shortness of breath, you might have:

Some common foods that some people are allergic to are eggs, milk, nuts, shellfish, and wheat. Things in the air that can set off your allergies are dust, pollen, and pet dander -- tiny pieces of skin that are shed by cats, dogs, and other animals.

Your doctor can give you tests that pinpoint the triggers for your allergies. Medications, such as antihistamines, can help relieve many symptoms. Your doctor may also recommend immunotherapy, a long-term treatment plan that involves regular injections.

It might feel like someone is sitting on your chest or you can't get enough air in or out. You take short breaths to try to get as much in.

Asthma is one of the most common lung diseases. It can be triggered by something you're allergic to, like pollen, or from an irritant in the air, like smoke. Stress, exercise, or even a change in the weather can set it off.

In addition to shortness of breath, it can cause:

To keep it under control, work with your doctor to create a treatment plan. First, avoid all triggers except exercise, which is important for your overall health.

You can try two kinds of medicines. One is for long-term control and the other is for quick relief.

Your heart works hard for you your whole life. But sometimes its rhythm gets off-kilter. When it skips a beat or flutters in an unusual way, it's known as atrial fibrillation (AFib). The upper chambers of your heart quiver, and it can become less effective at pumping blood. This can lead to blood clots, stroke, and heart failure.

When you have AFib, you'll notice some other symptoms besides shortness of breath.

Doctors can treat your AFib with medications, but you can also keep it in check by some lifestyle changes, such as drinking less coffee.

It's a type of lung disease that mainly involves two conditions: long-term bronchitis and emphysema. It's generally caused by smoking.

Over time, your lung tissue gets damaged, and you find it harder to draw air in and out of your lungs.

Some other signs of COPD are:

COPD can be managed with medication, but there's no cure, and it gets worse over time. A change in lifestyle, including exercise and eating right, can help. You may need doses of extra oxygen from a tank or another device. Your doctor might recommend surgery to repair your damaged lungs.

If you've been smoking for a while, it shouldn't be a surprise if you can't breathe as well. Of the many health problems that come with tobacco, lung disease is at the top.

But you may not realize that when you stop lighting up, you can have short stints where you can't catch your breath.

As you smoke, you damage your lungs. It can take a while for them to heal once you've stopped. Aside from trouble breathing, you can have:

After you put out your last cigarette, your ability to breathe normally should return in 1 to 9 months. It depends on how long and heavily you smoked.

Don't ignore your breathing troubles or put off getting help. Your body is trying to tell you something important. Get in touch with your doctor to find the source of the problem and learn how to get relief. Once you've got a diagnosis, you'll be one step closer to breathing easier.

Show Sources


American Heart Association: "What is Atrial Fibrillation (AFib or AF)?" "Shortness of Breath."

American Academy of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology: "Allergy Shots (Immunotherapy)," "Allergies."

American Lung Association: "Warning Signs of Lung Disease," "Pet Dander," "What Are COPD Symptoms?"

COPD Foundation: "Oxygen Therapy."

National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute: "How Is Asthma Treated and Controlled?"

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