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Shortness of Breath: Symptoms, Signs, Causes, Treatment and Prevention

Last Updated: Mar 15, 2022

What is shortness of breath?

Shortness of breath or dyspnea is a discomforting condition where people face difficulty with their breathing. Heart and lung disorders can inhibit the air from getting fully into the lungs and cause trouble breathing.

The problem of dyspnea varies from person to person and the duration of this condition can last for about a few hours to a few days and sometimes to about a few weeks. It is usually a warning sign of a serious medical condition. If you are experiencing shortness of breath, contact a physician right away.

Most of the times shortness of breath occurs as a side effect of another medical emergency. Aside from heart and lung disorders shortness of breath can occur as a result of anemia, as a result of hyperventilation or because of smoking habits or pollutants in the air that cause irritation. Dyspnea can also occur as a result of chronic conditions such as pneumonia, bronchitis and pulmonary fibrosis.

What are the signs and symptoms of shortness of breath?

A person with dyspnea (shortness of breath) may experience the following signs and symptoms:

  • Out of breath
  • A sensation of tightness in the chest
  • Unable to get enough oxygen quickly
  • Hungry for air (also called air hunger)
  • Suffocation
  • Wheezing
  • Chest tightness
  • Fevers
  • Chills
  • Feelings of breathlessness
  • Headaches
  • Muscle and lung pain
  • Fatigue
  • Bloating
  • Swollen limbs (legs)

If you experience these symptoms it is advised that you seek help from your healthcare provider right away, then on consultation with him/her you notify the doctor of your medical history. Avoid smoking and environmental pollutants, do not share eating utensils with anyone and take warms baths.

Can Shortness Of Breath go away on its own?

Shortness of breath occurs when you don't feel like you can get sufficient air into your lungs. This terrifying feeling is described as dyspnea by doctors. It might be a sign of a variety of health problems. Depending upon the health condition, doctors recommend various treatments. Normally, shortness of breath can go away by doing some exercises, taking medications, etc. In some cases, doctors also recommend oxygen therapy.

Shortness of breath can be prevented or relieved on its own. Steps that may be beneficial include:

  • Stay away from chemicals and perfumes as inhaling them might cause shortness of breath.
  • Try some breathing exercises to improve your breathing.
  • Avoid smoking as it will impact your lungs badly.
  • Maintain a healthy weight.
  • Avoid going to places where air pollution is too much.

How do you know if shortness of breath is serious?

Shortness of breath is usually associated with a state of physical exertion or exercise. But in some cases, it may be related to some serious health issues including heart disease, lung tissue diseases, obstructions to airflow, and diseases related to the chest walls and chest muscles. Symptoms that indicate that shortness of breath is serious include the following:

  • Presence of blood in the sputum
  • Chest pain as well as tightness
  • Anxiousness
  • Cough
  • Dizziness and fatigue
  • Fainting
Summary: Shortness of breath may be related to physical exertion but it becomes a serious concern when accompanied by symptoms including anxiousness, bloody sputum, pain or tightness in the chest, cough, dizziness, fatigue, etc.

Types of Dyspnea :

Shortness of breath has been classified into two types:

  • Sudden Dyspnea (Acute Dyspnea): This usually starts in a matter of minutes or hours. It can accompany other symptoms like a rash, cough or fever.
  • Long-lasting dyspnea (Chronic Dyspnea): This can make a person feel out of breath even while doing simple things such as walking or standing up.

Certain body positions can improve or worsen the symptoms of shortness of breath in some people. People with certain types of cardiovascular and pulmonary disease may experience worsened symptoms while lying down flat.

What causes shortness of breath?

When a person experiences sudden shortness of breath, then the condition is known as acute dyspnea. Conditions that can cause acute dyspnea (sudden shortness of breath) include:

  • Asthma
  • Heart attack
  • Blockage in the breathing passage (Upper airway obstruction)
  • Severe allergic reaction (Anaphylaxis)
  • Heart failure
  • Pneumonia
  • COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease)
  • Sudden blood loss
  • Heart arrhythmias
  • A collapsed lung (Pneumothorax)
  • A blood clot in a lung artery (Pulmonary embolism)
  • Carbon monoxide poisoning
COVID-19 Symptoms: Shortness of breath is one of the significant symptoms of Coronavirus Disease (COVID-19) . The other common symptoms are dry cough, fever and fatigue.

When the shortness of breath lasts for weeks, then it is known as chronic dyspnea. The following conditions may cause chronic dyspnea:

  • Asthma
  • Heart dysfunction
  • COPD
  • Interstitial lung disease
  • Obesity
  • Accumulation of fluids around the lungs (pleural effusion)
  • Deconditioning
  • Sarcoidosis (Accumulation of inflammatory cells in the body)
  • Heart disease
  • Cardiomyopathy (swollen heart muscle)
  • Pulmonary fibrosis (scarring of the lungs)
  • Pulmonary hypertension (high blood pressure in the lungs)

Besides the aforementioned conditions, a number of other medical conditions may also adversely affect normal breathing. These include Anxiety disorder, Lung cancer, Tuberculosis, Myasthenia gravis (a condition causing muscle weakness), Croup (usually in young children), Pericarditis (inflammation of the tissue around the heart), Guillain-Barre syndrome, Epiglottitis, and Kyphoscoliosis (a chest wall deformity).

Why is my shortness of breath worse at night?

Shortness of breath may become worse at night. This can be a serious condition and may need medical care and attention on an urgent basis. Important reasons for this include the following:

  • Chronic shortness of breath: Symptoms related to the shortness of breath when continue to occur for a prolonged duration i.e for more than a month, can trigger worsening of the same at night.
  • Paroxysmal nocturnal dyspnea: This is accompanied by orthopnea i.e occurrence of shortness of breath after lying down. After a few hours of sleep, symptoms of this start to show. This is quite an uncomfortable condition.
Summary: Shortness of breath is accompanied by worsening of the symptoms, especially at night. The reasons include chronic shortness of breath and paroxysmal nocturnal dyspnea.

What is the difference between shortness of breath and breathlessness?

Breathlessness is a state of the body when it requires more oxygen than it is actually getting. It may be acute or chronic which means sudden occurrence and occurring over a period of time respectively.

Lungs automatically start breathing at a faster rate in such conditions to fulfill the increased demand for oxygen in the lungs. Shortness of breath is one of the symptoms of breathlessness which may occur alone or along with another symptom i.e difficulty breathing.

Summary: Shortness of breath and difficulty breathing are the related symptoms of breathlessness that may occur independently or side by side. Breathlessness provokes faster breathing to fulfill the increased demand for oxygen.

How is shortness of breath diagnosed?

A physician will ask you to share your symptoms and medical history. He may perform spirometry, a lung function test that helps in measuring the amount of air your lungs can blow in and blow out. It also tracks the speed with which your lungs perform this task. This test is usually performed to diagnose COPD and asthma.

Some of the tests that he may ask you to undergo include:

  • Pulse oximetry: The test helps the amount of oxygen in the blood.
  • Blood tests: The test can help determine if you have medical conditions such as anaemia and infection. It may also look for the presence of a blood clot or fluid around the lungs.
  • CT scan or Chest X-ray: These imaging tests are performed to see if you have pneumonia, pulmonary embolism (a blood clot in the lung), or any other lung disease.
  • Electrocardiogram (EKG): The test is performed to check if a person is experiencing shortness of breath because of a heart attack by measuring the electrical signals from the heart.

How is shortness of breath treated?

  • For people experiencing shortness of breath due to asthma and COPD (Chronic Obstructive Lung Disease), treatments involve taking drugs include bronchodilators such as atrovent, albuterol, spiriva and serevent. The bronchodilator medications are effective for shortness of breath when a shrinking of the muscles happens and causes narrowing of the lungs.
  • For people experiencing shortness of breath because of poor haemoglobin levels in the blood (anaemia), a physician may prescribe supplements to raise increase iron levels.
  • When shortness of breath is caused by a bacterial infection, antibiotics will be prescribed to get relief.
  • A physician may ask people with chronic lung conditions, such as COPD, to practice breathing exercises such as pursed-lip breathing and breathing muscle strengthening exercises.
  • For people experiencing shortness of breath due lack of oxygen within themselves, supplemental oxygen will be recommended for people with severe case of dyspnea. Doctors may also prescribe taking corticosteroids, anti-coagulant and diuretics.
  • If a serious underlying medication condition is causing shortness of breath, then the physician may recommend treatment accordingly.

Who is eligible for the treatment?

People who are suffering from asthma, cystic fibrosis, pneumonia, severe allergic reactions, Covid-19, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease are eligible for taking breathing treatment. Apart from them, this treatment can also be given to those who are feeling breathless.

Who is not eligible for the treatment?

People with normal breath or people who are experiencing shortness of breath due to pollution, anxiety, or being overweight are not eligible for the treatment. They can simply do some exercises to combat this problem.

What are the side effects of dyspnea treatment?

Patients who have been prescribed bronchodilator medications such as beta-2 agonists are likely to experience side effects such as muscle aches, headaches, trembling sensations, sudden palpitations and nervous tension.

Anticholinergics can produce side effects such as constipation, dryness of mouth, headaches, trouble swallowing, heartburn and throat irritation.

Theophylline, another bronchodilator can produce side effects such as vomiting, nausea, diarrhoea, palpitations and insomnia.

Side effects of corticosteroids if used for long can cause side effects such as high blood pressure, weight gain, diabetes, easy bruising, osteoporosis, mood swings, muscle weakness and eye disorders.

What are the post-treatment guidelines?

In order to prevent any future attack of dyspnea you need to adhere to certain post-treatment guidelines such as quitting the habit of smoking both first-hand and second-hand and losing weight (as that reduces stress on the lungs and heart). Also, it is advised that you try to take precaution against inhaling environmental pollutants.

What are the complications associated with shortness of breath or dyspnea?

Dyspnea is usually associated with low oxygen levels in the blood (a condition known as hypoxia or hypoxemia). Poor oxygen levels in the blood can adversely affect levels of consciousness. Severe dyspnea that continues for a long time can lead to temporary or permanent cognitive impairment. It may also worsen symptoms of other medical problems.

Are the results of the treatment permanent?

The results of this treatment can be permanent if the patients adhere to the post-treatment guidelines well. Environmental triggers and other lung infections can once again lead to dyspnea.

How to prevent shortness of breath?

Shortness of breath is a condition that may result from multiple factors. Therefore, it may not be possible to prevent this condition in certain circumstances. However, a person can follow the below-mentioned measures to reduce the likelihood of chronic shortness of breath from getting worse.

  • Quit smoking: Smoking is known to damage the lungs. It is also a risk factor for conditions such as COPD and lung cancer. People with COPD can delay the progression of this chronic condition and prevent complications from worsening.
  • Avoid exposure to pollutants: Avoid breathing allergens such as pollens and environmental pollutants, such as smoke and chemical fumes.
  • Avoid extremes in temperature: Exposure to extreme temperatures (such as very hot and humid or very cold conditions) can increase the risk of shortness of breath in people with chronic lung conditions.
  • Exercise regularly: Regular exercise has a positive effect on lung function. People with obesity are at an increased risk of developing chronic lung conditions. Therefore, obese people should exercise regularly.
  • Keep altitude in mind: Avoid physical activity and take time to adjust when travelling to places located at high altitudes.
  • Take your medications: People with chronic lung and cardiac conditions should not skip medications as that can increase the risk of dyspnea.
  • Regularly check your equipment: If you use supplemental oxygen, regularly check your breathing equipment and ensure that your oxygen supply is adequate.

What to eat in Shortness Of Breath?

Eating certain foods aid in improving the air passageway. If you have been dealing with Asthma, allergies or you are trying to quit smoking, then these nutrients could be a boon for treating the shortness of breath.

  • Nuts
  • Apples
  • Cruciferous Vegetables
  • Olive oil
  • Salmon
  • Wholegrains
  • Orange Fruits
  • Green Tea
  • Seeds
  • Garlic
  • Coffee

Apart from following the above diet. You must also take care of the foods that cause gas.

What not to eat in Shortness Of Breath?

Foods that cause gas should be avoided in shortness of breath. Bloating reduces the space for your lungs to breathe. So, limit or cut them out from your diet. Some of the foods to avoid are:

  • Lentils
  • Beans
  • Cucumber
  • Onion
  • Peas
  • Melons
  • Root Vegetables
  • Spicy Food
  • Asparagus
  • Carbonated Drinks
  • Fried and Greasy Foods

What should I eat for shortness of breath?

Shortness of breath is related to an inability of a person to take enough air to breathe. It may or may not be a serious concern. In normal cases when there is not a medical emergency, one can adopt certain home remedies to control and manage the condition.

This includes consumption of some specific food items which can ease the symptoms. Fresh ginger is one of those eatables which is preferred to be taken in such conditions.

Summary: Shortness of breath may not be a serious concern in normal cases, hence can be controlled and managed by home remedies. Consuming fresh ginger is one such method.

Should I go to urgent care for Shortness of Breath?

If you are experiencing swelling in your feet, ankles or facing problems while lying flat, a high temperature, spiky chills, and cough or wheezing, then it is time to consult a doctor. Also, if your shortness of breath becomes more severe, you should visit a doctor.

How can I calm my shortness of breath and anxiety?

We can calm shortness of breath and anxiety by doing diaphragmatic breathing. During the condition when we are undergoing shortness of breath, we usually breathe from the mouth or chest. But diaphragmatic breathing actually can help in such conditions. Steps involved in the same include the following:

  • We have to either sit in a chair or lie down on a flat surface like the bed in a comfortable position with the head being supported.
  • One hand is to be placed on the upper portion of the chest while the other hand is supposed to be below the rib cage. By this, we can feel our diaphragm clearly.
  • Then we have to breathe slowly through the nose so that movement of the stomach is felt against our hands.
  • Stomach muscles have to be tightened while exhaling through the nose or mouth.
  • We have to do deep breathing like this continuously. This has to be done for 5 to 10 minutes every day.
Summary: In general conditions, we overcome shortness of breath through an increased rate of breathing from the mouth or chest. But diaphragmatic breathing is the more effective way to calm down such conditions.

How long does it take to recover from Shortness of Breath?

It depends on one's condition of lungs. Sometimes the patient recovers soon. However, certain conditions are so chronic that it takes several months to recover from shortness of breath.

What are the alternatives to the treatment?

Some alternative treatment methods include some breathing muscle strengthening exercises and homeopathy.

  • The homeopathic medications for dyspnea includes Arsenic album for people suffering from asthma
  • Antimonium Tart and Ipecac homeopathic medication for shortness of breath that is experienced during coughing
  • Ammonium Carb and Stannum Met homeopathic medications for shortness of breath experienced by people during walking
  • Carbo veg and Silicea homeopathic medication for the aged
  • Lachesis and Grindelia medication for dyspnea experienced by people during the process of sleep.

Physical Exercises for the people suffering from Shortness Of Breath:

Following are some of the physical exercises that you can take up to improve your breathing:

  • Walking: Begin with walking. It's one of the most effective and simple strategies to improve your breathing. It helps in improving the air passageways so that you don’t face discomfort in breathing normally.
  • Stretching: It is another great way to make your muscles supple.
  • Putting on weight: A light dumbbell can help you in breathing properly.
  • Breathing techniques & Yogas: Practice some yoga asanas and breathing techniques to avoid shortness of breath.
Summary: Shortness of breath is medically termed dyspnea. In this condition, a person experiences insufficiency of air in the lungs. It can elevate several health problems if left unaddressed. So, it's a good idea to keep track of how much breathlessness you're experiencing. In an emergency case, it is recommended to consult a doctor.

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Written ByDr. Goma Bali Bajaj Diploma in geriatric,MBBS,MEM,Diploma In GeriatricGeneral Physician
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