Read below about shortness of breath, including causes, treatment options and remedies. Or get a personalized analysis of your shortness of breath from our A.I. health assistant. At Buoy, we build tools that help you know what’s wrong right now and how to get the right care.

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Shortness of Breath Symptoms

Struggling to breathe can be a frightening experience. The body depends on a constant flow of fresh air, and a problem that interferes with breathing is especially dangerous. Symptoms of shortness of breath, or dyspnea, can vary widely in severity. While sometimes shortness of breath symptoms are the result of an infection like pneumonia, the respiratory system may also be impacted or impaired by medical problems elsewhere in the body.

Shortness of breath symptoms may be associated with:

Shortness of Breath Causes Overview

Effective breathing depends on a complex network of systems in the body. Of course, the lungs must be healthy. However, the chest wall must also be able to move freely and the windpipe, or trachea, needs to be clear. The brain controls breathing at a regular rate, and the heart pumps oxygen to the rest of the body. The surrounding air must also be clean and contain enough oxygen.

As many body systems are involved in breathing, shortness of breath has a large number of causes that can be confusing. Doctors often think about shortness of breath in categories, some of which are listed below:

External causes:

  • Infection: Viruses or bacteria can enter through the windpipe and cause problems like pneumonia.
  • Environment: Irritants in the air like pollution or pollen may cause inflammation in the airway and lungs, making it difficult to breathe.
  • Obstruction: Choking is when something physically blocks air from traveling through the windpipe. This is a special concern in young children.
  • Trauma: An accident or other injury may cause the lung to collapse or lead to painful injuries like rib fractures that make it difficult to breathe.
  • Toxin: Poisons like carbon monoxide or cigarette smoke may impair normal respiratory function.

Medical causes:

  • Lung disease: Medical problems such as COPD or asthma may keep the body from getting enough oxygen.
  • Heart disease: Cardiac health is closely tied to the respiratory system, and problems like a heart attack or heart failure often cause shortness of breath symptoms.
  • Neurological disease: Nerves help power the muscles that inflate and deflate lungs, so without them, breathing would not be possible. Central nervous system conditions impacting the brain may also cause shortness of breath symptoms.
  • Hematologic disease: Blood disorders like a low blood count (anemia) or a tendency to form clots are serious concerns that may present with shortness of breath.

Other causes:

  • Anxiety: People who worry excessively often complain of shortness of breath, especially during especially stressful moments or panic attacks.
  • Poor overall fitness: Being overweight or out of shape increases stress on your body during physical activity.

10 Potential Shortness of Breath Causes

Disclaimer: The article does not replace an evaluation by a physician. Information on this page is provided as an information resource only, and is not to be used or relied on for any diagnostic or treatment purposes.

  1. 1.Asthma Attack

    An asthma attack is the sudden worsening of asthma caused by a trigger (e.g., exercise or cold air) or infection.

    Within minutes of treatment.

    Top Symptoms:
    shortness of breath, shortness of breath at rest, tight, heavy, squeezing chest pain, wheezing, cough with dry or watery sputum
    Symptoms that always occur with asthma attack:
    shortness of breath
    Symptoms that never occur with asthma attack:
    blue skin
    In-person visit
  2. 2.Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disorder (Copd) Exacerbation

    A COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease) exacerbation is a worsening of your COPD, causing you to struggle for breathe. This is often caused by an infection in the lungs.

    Depends on treatment

    Top Symptoms:
    shortness of breath, productive cough, wheezing, worsening cough, coughing up green or yellow phlegm
    Hospital emergency room
  3. 3.Iron Deficiency Anemia

    Anemia is a condition in which the body does not have enough healthy red blood cells, which deliver oxygen. Iron deficiency anemia occurs when the body does not have enough iron. Iron helps make red blood cells.

    Resolves with treatment

    Top Symptoms:
    fatigue, headache, shortness of breath, dizziness, heavy menstrual flow
    Primary care doctor
  4. 4.Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (Copd)

    COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease) is a chronic condition of the lungs and the airways in the lungs. Damage has occured due to long-term exposure to substances that irritate and damage the lungs, such as cigarette smoke or air pollution. This damage can cause symptoms like shortness of breath, decreased exercise tolerance and cough. A common cold or other types of infection can cause symptoms to worden acutely, this is called an exacerbation.

    Often a lifelong condition

    Top Symptoms:
    fatigue, cough and dyspnea related to smoking, cough, shortness of breath, trouble sleeping
    Symptoms that always occur with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (copd):
    cough and dyspnea related to smoking
    Symptoms that never occur with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (copd):
    rectal bleeding
    Primary care doctor
  5. 5.Panic Disorder

    Panic disorder is a type of anxiety disorder. It causes panic attacks, which are sudden feelings of terror without true danger. One may feel as if they are losing control or have physical symptoms like sweating or a racing heart.

    Chronic with relapses

    Top Symptoms:
    anxiety, abdominal pain (stomach ache), nausea, stomach bloating, depressed mood
    Symptoms that always occur with panic disorder:
    Symptoms that never occur with panic disorder:
    Primary care doctor

    Shortness of Breath Checker

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  6. 6.Aortic Valve Regurgitation

    Aortic valve regurgitation is a condition that occurs when your heart's aortic valve doesn't close tightly. This allows some of the blood that was just pumped out of the lower left chamber (left ventricle) to leak back into it.

    Can be severely acute or chronic.

    Top Symptoms:
    shortness of breath, racing heart beat, shortness of breath on exertion, shortness of breath when lying down, brief fainting episode
    Primary care doctor
  7. 7.Bacterial Pneumonia

    Bacterial pneumonia is the infection of the lungs with bacteria (as opposed to a fungus or a virus).

    1-3 weeks

    Top Symptoms:
    fatigue, cough, headache, loss of appetite, shortness of breath
    Symptoms that always occur with bacterial pneumonia:
    In-person visit
  8. 8.Hyperventiliation Syndrome

    In hyperventilation syndrome, one can experience shortness of breath and often a person breaths fast and heavily. There is usually no physical problem causing these symptoms, and symptoms are often caused by anxiety, stress or emotions. Next to shortness of breath, one can experience symptoms of chest pain, palpitations or tingling in hands, feet and face. These symptoms occur commonly as attacks.

    Chronic with relapses

    Top Symptoms:
    anxiety, shortness of breath, dizziness, racing heart beat, chest pain
    Symptoms that always occur with hyperventiliation syndrome:
    rapid, deep breaths
    Symptoms that never occur with hyperventiliation syndrome:
    shortness of breath after a few stairs
    Primary care doctor
  9. 9.Viral Pneumonia

    Viral pneumonia is inflammation (irritation and swelling) of the lungs due to infection with a virus. Community-acquired pneumonia is the most common type, which is usually acquired in public areas such as at work, school, or grocery store.

    Symptoms begin to improve within a few days.

    Top Symptoms:
    fatigue, headache, cough, shortness of breath, loss of appetite
    Primary care doctor
  10. 10.Hypertrophic Cardiomyopathy

    Hypertrophic cardiomyopathy (HCM) is a disease in which the heart muscle (myocardium) becomes abnormally thick (hypertrophied). This happens sometimes as a result of long-term elevated blood pressure, and sometimes without any particular reason. The thickened heart muscle can make it harder for the heart to pump blood.

    Hypertrophic cardiomyopathy is a life-long condition, as the heart walls are permanently enlarged.

    Top Symptoms:
    fatigue, shortness of breath, dizziness, racing heart beat, shortness of breath on exertion
    Primary care doctor

Shortness of Breath Treatments and Relief

The potential causes of shortness of breath are quite broad, and potential treatments are just as diverse. Difficulty breathing is a serious problem, and a professional evaluation should not be delayed.

During your initial evaluation, a doctor will likely focus on narrowing the potential shortness of breath causes with several tests, including:

  • Comprehensive physical exam: A close look at your breathing and other symptoms (such as cough) may help determine a diagnosis.
  • Imaging: A chest X-ray can reveal crucial information, while CT scans offer an even more detailed picture. Sometimes an ultrasound can be used as well.
  • Laboratory tests: Blood work can provide clues about a possible infection, inflammation, autoimmune diseases and other causes of shortness of breath symptoms.
  • Pulmonary function tests: These tests will measure your breathing ability during various maneuvers.
  • Bronchoscopy: A pulmonologist can look into your airway and lungs with a small camera and may take biopsies for examination under a microscope.

Once the underlying shortness of breath cause is determined, treatment can include:

  • Inhalers: These devices deliver aerosolized medication directly into the airway. They can provide immediate relief, such as during an asthma attack, or may have longer-term benefits.
  • Other prescription medications: A doctor may prescribe a drug to treat your shortness of breath symptoms, slow the progression of your disease or treat the underlying cause.
  • Oxygen: Supplemental oxygen can ease the work of breathing and improve quality of life for patients with chronically low blood oxygen levels.
  • Surgery: A procedure in the hospital can drain fluid on the lung, repair trauma, or remove a mass, among many other possibilities.

You can also help address the problem at home.

  • Take medications as prescribed: Medication compliance is very important.
  • Avoid irritants: For instance, some people find that very cold air triggers their shortness of breath symptoms, while others point to cigarette smoke or pollen.
  • Smoking cessation: Smoking is a leading cause of preventable shortness of breath and even death. Your doctor can help develop strategies to help you quit.

Since breathing trouble can sometimes be a medical emergency, it's important to see help immediately if:

  • You feel like you cannot adequately control your symptoms at home
  • Your shortness of breath is worsening quickly or comes on all of the sudden
  • You also have chest pain
  • You feel weak, dizzy or confused

FAQs About Shortness of Breath

Here are some frequently asked questions about shortness of breath.

What causes shortness of breath?

Shortness of breath is most commonly caused by exercise or exertion and a need to breathe off the lactic acid that builds up in bodily tissues during exercise. It can also be caused by diseases of the heart or lungs that make it more challenging to deliver oxygen or transfer oxygen into the blood or carbon dioxide out of the blood.

What is shortness of breath a symptom of ?

Shortness of breath can be a symptoms of normal bodily functioning during exercise, lung disease, cardiovascular disease, kidney disease, and liver disease. Essentially, it is caused by an inability of the body to deliver adequate oxygen to the blood while breathing at a normal and restful rate. The body compensates for some problem in oxygen delivery to match oxygen needs/consumption by increasing the breathing rate — which causes shortness of breath.

What causes shortness of breath and chest pain?

Shortness of breath and chest pain can be caused by an upper respiratory tract infection and severe coughing, a lower respiratory tract infection like pneumonia or bronchitis, and inflammation of the lining of the lungs, or cardiovascular diseases like a myocardial infarction. It can also be caused by a panic attack accompanied by hyperventilation or breathing too quickly due to fear.

Questions Your Doctor May Ask About Shortness of Breath

  • Q.Any fever today or during the last week?
  • Q.Have you been feeling more tired than usual, lethargic or fatigued despite sleeping a normal amount?
  • Q.Do you currently smoke?
  • Q.Do you have a cough?

If you've answered yes to one or more of these questions, try our shortness of breath symptom checker to find out more.

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Shortness of Breath Symptom Checker Statistics

  • People who have experienced shortness of breath have also experienced:

    • 7% Tight, Heavy, Squeezing Chest Pain
    • 5% Rib Pain
    • 5% Cough
  • People who have experienced shortness of breath had symptoms persist for:

    • 36% Less Than a Day
    • 24% Over a Month
    • 21% Less Than a Week
  • People who have experienced shortness of breath were most often matched with:

    • 5% Asthma Attack
    • 2% Iron Deficiency Anemia
  • Source: Aggregated and anonymized results from visits to the Buoy AI health assistant (check it out by clicking on “Take Quiz”).

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