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Overview of Shortness of Breath: Meaning, symptoms, causes & treatment

Team AckoJan 17, 2024

Feeling breathless can be a terrifying experience, especially if it happens suddenly. People who have asthma or hay fever may feel their throat closing up even on exposure to common environmental agents such as dust or pollen. Notably, those with disorders of the heart or lungs may experience Shortness of Breath (SB) even at rest. Thus, it’s crucial to get an overview of this phenomenon so that appropriate action can be taken to avoid serious trouble.




What is Shortness of Breath?

Shortness of Breath refers to any type of difficulty in breathing such as laboured breathing or extreme discomfort while breathing. Medically it is termed as Dyspnea. 

Why do we experience Shortness of Breath?

Controlling the rate of breathing is a complicated process and involves the brain and multiple peripheral receptors located in the lungs and near the heart. Any modification in the signal transmitted by these can cause SB.

Breathlessness after intense exercise, at higher altitudes, or in extreme climates is normal for most people. Dyspnea at rest indicates an underlying issue in the cardiovascular, respiratory, or neuromuscular system. 

What are the symptoms of Shortness of Breath?

Some of the common symptoms that may be experienced along with SB include the following.

  • Chest tightness or pain

  • Dizziness or lightheadedness

  • Increase in heart rate or irregular heartbeat

  • Gasping for air

  • Coughing

  • Fatigue or weakness

  • Sweating

These symptoms may occur suddenly and resolve in a few hours in case of an allergic reaction or panic attack. However, they may also worsen over time with repeated episodes in case of certain disorders.

What are the causes of Shortness of Breath?

SB is not a disease in itself. Rather, it is an indication of some underlying pathology. A detailed history and thorough physical examination help to reach a diagnosis. Some of the common causes of Shortness of Breath include the following.

1. Respiratory causes

  • Asthma

  • COPD (Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease)

  • Pneumonia

  • Pulmonary embolism (a condition in which a blood clot blocks blood supply to the lung)

  • Lung malignancy

2. Cardiovascular causes

  • Congestive heart failure (a condition in which the heart is unable to pump blood properly)

  • Pulmonary edema (fluid accumulation in the lungs)

  • Cardiac tamponade (collection of blood around the heart)

  • Arrhythmia

  • Heart attacks

3. Neuromuscular causes

  • Trauma to the chest damaging the lung or ribs

  • Massive obesity

  • Spinal cord disorders

  • Kyphoscoliosis (a change in the curvature of the spine)

  • Phrenic nerve injury (damage to the nerve supplying the diaphragm, the major muscle involved in breathing)

4. Psychogenic causes

  • Hyperventilation syndrome or panic attacks

  • Vocal cord dysfunction

  • Anxiety

How is Shortness of Breath diagnosed?

To reach the cause of this condition, doctors perform several tests including the following.

  • A detailed physical examination to check for heart rate, respiratory rate, body temperature, body mass index (BMI), and oxygen saturation.

  • A chest X-ray to look for any fluid or masses.

  • An electrocardiogram and echocardiogram to assess heart function.

  • Spirometry to assess lung function and respiratory muscle function.

  • An ABG or arterial blood gas analysis to check for acidosis and oxygen saturation in the blood.

  • Oxygen saturation levels.

  • Specific tests such as culture of the secretions if an infection is suspected.

What is the treatment for Shortness of Breath?

The treatment of Shortness of Breath depends on the underlying cause. It may involve simple lifestyle changes and medical or surgical intervention when necessary. Hence, it is important to consult a medical professional who can determine the problem's seriousness.

Some of the simple changes that can be made in daily life include the following. 

  • Avoidance of triggers: Most patients who have had SB for a long time can identify certain triggers that increase the chances of having an episode. Common triggers include pollen, strong fragrances, cold or dry weather, or even acid reflux and infections. 

  • Modify your position: A simple change in position can expand your chest cavity and help you breathe better, especially if you have COPD. 

For example, sit comfortably on a chair and lean forward while resting your elbows on your knees. If you have a dining table, you could also bend forward while sitting and rest your arms and head on a pillow kept on the table. You can even choose to stand and lean forward, resting your hands on a table. If you don’t have a chair or table, even a wall is enough. Stand with your hips against the wall and bend forward with your hands hanging loosely. 

  • Practice breathing techniques: These are two simple breathing techniques that you can try.

Technique 1: Pursed-lip breathing

  1. Sit in a relaxed position

  2. Breathe in slowly for two counts

  3. Purse your lips like you are going to whistle

  4. Exhale slowly through your mouth for four counts

Technique 2: Diaphragmatic breathing

  1. Sit in a comfortable and relaxed position with one hand on your stomach.

  2. Breathe in through your nose and breathe out slowly through pursed lips with a focus on the way in which your belly moves. You should be able to feel your stomach move out when you inhale and move inwards when you exhale. 

  • Other lifestyle changes

  1. Quit smoking

  2. Follow a healthy diet with regular exercise and sleep. These measures can also help keep body weight in check

  3. Avoid sudden exertion, especially at higher elevations.

  4. Practice yoga and meditation to control anxiety.

Any sudden or severe Shortness of Breath, chest pain, or dizziness warrants immediate medical attention and may require oxygen therapy. If your tests indicate any respiratory or heart condition, your doctor can assess the need for medication.

Appropriate management is crucial

Shortness of Breath can be a scary symptom to experience. If you experience it, it is important to identify the underlying cause especially if it is present for a long duration. With appropriate management, you can improve your breathing and lead a healthy, active life.

Frequently Asked Questions

Here’s a list of common questions and answers related to Shortness of Breath.


Is it normal to get breathless after climbing up the stairs?

Getting breathless after exertion is normal. In case you are not used to frequent physical exercise or have low stamina, you may get breathless after climbing a few flights of stairs. However, if it occurs after just a few steps, it is best to consult an expert.

When should I consult a doctor for Shortness of Breath?

If you are getting breathless even at rest or along with chest pain, dizziness, or blue discoloration of the skin (cyanosis), it is recommended to consult a doctor immediately.

What can I do to prevent Shortness of Breath?

If you have asthma, avoid contact with triggers. Regular physical exercise, maintaining a healthy weight, deep breathing exercises, and a good diet are beneficial. Quit smoking.

What is the permanent cure for Shortness of Breath?

SB is a symptom of some underlying disease. If the disease is correctly diagnosed and treated, and lifestyle changes are adopted, it can resolve.

Disclaimer: The content on this page is generic and shared only for informational and explanatory purposes. Please consult a doctor before making any health-related decisions. Shortness of Breath is written as SB in this article.


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