Breathing difficulty or shortness of breath (also known as dyspnea) is a distressing sensation that makes breathing requires more effort than usual. The sensation is often described by people as an intense tightening in the chest, so-called “air hunger,” and a feeling of panic and suffocation at its worst.

Dyspnea is mainly caused by chronic cardiopulmonary conditions such as:

  • Asthma
  • Heart Disease
  • Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease
  • Psychological Conditions that Cause Anxiety and Panic Attacks

Other causes of shortness of breath include:

  • Obesity- This puts excess pressure on the lungs.
  • Deconditioning or Lack of Fitness- This means your blood doesn’t extract oxygen efficiently and you tire quickly.
  • Heart Rhythm Problems- Like an irregular heartbeat (Atrial Fibrillation). In this condition, the heart work less well and oxygen isn’t pump properly around the body. This would exert more effort and rapid breathing to get more oxygen into your lungs.
  • Anemia
  • Sudden Blood Loss
  • Interstitial Lung Disease
  • Low Blood Pressure (Hypotension)
  • High Elevation- Altitudes above 4,000 feet can lower oxygen in your blood. This can cause light-headedness as well as nausea.
  • Some Medications- In rare cases, medicines such as beta-blockers or Aspirin may cause breathlessness if you have Asthma.
  • Allergies (such as to Mold, Dander, or Pollen)
  • Extreme Physical Activity

Signs of severe breathing difficulty include:

  • Rapid Respiratory and Heart Rate
  • Gasping
  • Wheezing
  • Rib Retractions
  • Nasal Flaring
  • Cyanosis (Hands and Feet Turn Bluish because of Lack of Oxygen)

Other symptoms may include:

  • Chest Pain
  • Pain with Inhalation (Pleurisy)
  • Anxiousness
  • Dizziness
  • Fainting
  • Cough
  • Bloody Sputum
  • Neck Pain and Chest Injury, since people that have difficulty in breathing often used their neck and shoulders to breathe.


Your doctor may order tests to determine if you have an underlying medical condition that is causing shortness of breath. These tests may include:

  • Oximeter- the test that used fingertip sensor to determine oxygen saturation
  • Chest X-ray or CT scan– to visualize lung damage
  • Various Heart and Pulmonary Tests



Treatment depends on the underlying cause. Treatment for breathing difficulty may include:

  • Oxygen Therapy
  • Antibiotics
  • Diuretic Medications
  • Heart and Blood Pressure Medications
  • Inhaled Medication for Wheezing

You should stop smoking if you are a smoker. If you are overweight, losing some pounds would also help.

If you suddenly experience shortness of breath without knowing what the cause is, just stay calm. Try to find the source of the problem. Rest and try to relax your muscle, your shortness of breath may be cause by an extreme physical activity. If your breathing difficulty continues to worsen, seek emergency help right away.



To prevent shortness of breath, avoid its causes. You must:

  • Stop smoking.
  • Lose weight if you are overweight, or at least don’t gain any more weight.
  • Avoid exposure to pollutants. As much as possible, avoid breathing allergens and environmental toxins.
  • Discuss with your doctor what to do if your symptoms become worse.
  • Avoid exertion at elevations higher than 5,000 feet (1,524 meters).
  • If you rely on supplemental oxygen, check regularly if you have adequate supply of oxygen or if the equipment is in good working condition.
  • Take care of yourself. Get treatment if you have an underlying medical condition.

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