Breathing Difficulty



What is breathing difficulty?

Breathing difficulty, or shortness of breath, is the distressing sensation that breathing requires more effort than usual. People who experience shortness of breath — also known as dyspnea — describe the sensation as an intense tightening in the chest, so-called “air hunger,” and, at its worst, a feeling of panic and suffocation. Ongoing breathing difficulties may be a sign of an underlying chronic condition, such as heart or lung disease or obesity.

How common is breathing difficulty?

Breathing difficulty is extremely common. It can be a part of everyday life for some active people. One-quarter of the population experiences dyspnea, and it is one of the most common reasons that people visit a hospital emergency room. It can occur in patients in any gender at any age. It can be managed by reducing your risk factors. Please discuss with your doctor for further information.

Which signs and symptoms can breathing difficulty usually be associated with?

Related signs and symptoms include:

  • Rapid heart rate
  • Gasping
  • Wheezing
  • Rib retractions
  • Nasal flaring
  • Cyanosis (Discoloration of the hands and feet due to lack of oxygen)


What causes breathing difficulty?

There are many causes of breathing problems. Some people have difficulty breathing when they get a cold. Others have trouble breathing because of occasional bouts of acute sinusitis. Sinusitis can make it difficult to breathe through your nose for a week or two until the inflammation subsides and the congested sinuses begin to drain.

Shortness of breath that comes on suddenly (called acute) has a limited number of causes, including:

  • Asthma (bronchospasm)
  • Carbon monoxide poisoning
  • Cardiac tamponade (excess fluid around the heart)
  • Heart attack
  • Heart failure
  • Low blood pressure (hypotension)
  • Pneumonia (and other pulmonary infections)
  • Pneumothorax (collapsed lung)
  • Pulmonary embolism (blood clot in an artery in the lung)
  • Sudden blood loss
  • Upper airway obstruction (blockage in the breathing passage)

In the case of shortness of breath that has lasted for weeks or longer (called chronic), the condition is most often due to:

  • Asthma
  • COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease)
  • Deconditioning
  • Heart dysfunction
  • Interstitial lung disease
  • Obesity

A number of other health conditions also can make it hard to get enough air. These include:

  • Lung problems:
    • Croup (especially in young children)
    • Lung cancer
    • Pleurisy (inflammation of the membrane surrounding the lungs)
    • Pulmonary edema (excess fluid in the lungs)
    • Pulmonary fibrosis (scarred and damaged lungs)
    • Pulmonary hypertension (high blood pressure within the lungs’ blood vessels)
    • Sarcoidosis (collections of inflammatory cells in the body)
    • Tuberculosis
  • Heart problems:
    • Cardiomyopathy (problem with the heart muscle)
    • Heart arrhythmias (heart rhythm problems)
    • Heart failure
    • Pericarditis (inflammation of the tissue around the heart)
  • Other problems:
    • Anemia
    • Broken ribs
    • Choking
    • Epiglottitis (swelling of the “lid” of your windpipe)
    • Foreign object inhaled
    • Generalized anxiety disorder
    • Guillain-Barre syndrome
    • Myasthenia gravis (condition causing muscle weakness)

The conditions mentioned above are some common causes of breathing difficulty. Consult with your doctor for an accurate diagnosis.

Risk factors

What increases my risk for breathing difficulty?

There are many risk factors for breathing difficulty, such as:

  • Smoking
  • Prior lung diseases
  • Muscle weakness
  • Low hemoglobin
  • Being out of shape from lack of exercise or illness
  • Severe obesity
  • Continued exposure to asthma triggers

Please consult with your doctor for further information.

When to see your doctor

When should I see my doctor?

You should contact your doctor if you or your loved one experiences shortness of breath is accompanied by:

  • Swelling in your feet and ankles
  • Trouble breathing when you lie flat
  • High fever, chills and cough
  • Wheezing
  • Worsening of pre-existing shortness of breath

Call an ambulance if you experience severe shortness of breath that comes on suddenly and affects your ability to function. Seek emergency medical care if your shortness of breath is accompanied by chest pain, fainting or nausea — as these may be signs of a heart attack or pulmonary embolism.

On noticing one of these symptoms or having any questions, please consult with your doctor. Everyone’s body acts differently. It is always best to discuss with your doctor to get the best solutions for your situation.

Lifestyle changes & home remedies

What are some lifestyle changes or home remedies that can help me manage breathing difficulty?

These following lifestyles and home remedies might help you cope with breathing difficulty:

  • Pace yourself.
  • Try not to hold your breath.
  • Use pursed lips breathing technique.
  • Sit in front of a fan so it is blowing on your face.
  • Ask your doctor if pulmonary rehab is right for you.
  • Lose weight if you are overweight.
  • Avoid exertions at elevations above 5000 feet unless trained and adapted.
  • Avoid triggers that worsen asthma.
  • Avoid exposure to pollutants in the air both indoors and out.
  • Stop smoking. The benefits of quitting include decreasing your risk for lung disease and heart disease even if you have been smoking a long time.
  • Get a general health checkup, since shortness of breath is often a symptom of a more serious problem.
  • Speak up to your healthcare provider about concerns and worries about your shortness of breath.
  • Continue medications on the schedule that has been recommended to you.
  • Follow a disease management action plan developed with your healthcare provider.
  • If you rely on supplemental oxygen be sure your supply is adequate and the equipment works properly.

If you have any questions, please consult with your doctor for the best solutions.

Hello Health Group does not provide medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.


Review Date: December 21, 2018 | Last Modified: December 21, 2018

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