Why you shouldn't ignore shortness of breath
It’s a scary experience to feel as though you are struggling to breathe or can’t breathe. Even when it’s momentary, and you think you know the cause, it might be worth discussing with your primary care provider. So, what is shortness of breath? We’ll discuss possible causes, symptoms, and preventative measures you can take to decrease the likelihood of experiencing shortness of breath.
What is shortness of breath?
Medically, shortness of breath is known as dyspnea that can be caused by medical conditions, environmental exposures among other causes. . You can describe this feeling in various ways including, chest tightening, difficulty breathing, breathlessness, or a suffocating feeling. Healthy people can experience shortness of breath when exercising strenuously, in high altitudes, and when out in extreme temperatures. If there’s not an obvious explanation for shortness of breath, it could be due to a medical condition, and you should get in touch with your primary care provider for further diagnosis.
What can cause shortness of breath?
Shortness of breath often signifies a heart or lung condition. Transporting oxygen and removing carbon dioxide are processes in which your heart and lungs are involved. Your breathing is affected when you have problems carrying out these processes. Shortness of breath can be acute (occur suddenly) or chronic (go on for weeks). Certain lung conditions, heart problems, broken ribs, anemia, or anxiety disorders (involving panic attacks) can make it more challenging to get enough air. Acute shortness of breath can be caused by:
- An upper airway obstruction
- A collapsed lung
- Heart attack or heart failure
- Pulmonary infections like pneumonia
- A severe allergic reaction or asthma
- Sudden blood loss
- Hiatal hernia
Chronic shortness of breath may be due to:
- Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)
- Lung conditions, including pulmonary hypertension (high blood pressure in the lungs) and interstitial pulmonary fibrosis (causes scarring of lung tissue)
- Heart disease or heart failure
- Significant weight gain
Shortness of breath symptoms
It’s never a good idea to ignore difficulty breathing. Note when you experience shortness of breath, the frequency in which breathing problems occur, and any other symptoms you experience at the same time. Symptoms include:
- Feeling out of breath
- Chest tightness
- Air hunger or feelings of suffocation
- Inability to breathe deeply (labored breathing or rapid, shallow breathing)
Speak with your primary care provider when you’re short of breath without knowing why (physical activity, extreme temperature, or high altitudes) or if you have a history of respiratory problems. Get emergency help if you’re also experiencing acute unexplained onset:
- Heart palpitations
- Chest pain or heaviness with or without other symptoms
- Wheezing or coughing
- High fever
- Swollen feet or ankles
- Blue lips or fingers
How to prevent shortness of breath
Preventative techniques depend on the underlying cause of your shortness of breath. No matter the cause of the problem, you can make lifestyle changes to improve your health and reduce breathing problems. Improvements to your diet and regular exercise help you maintain a healthy weight and contribute to a better quality of life. You may also be able to prevent shortness of breath by:
- Avoiding too much activity in extreme temperatures
- Paying attention to high humidity or air pollution alerts
- Taking time to adjust to higher altitudes
- Practicing breathing and relaxation techniques (helpful for reducing stress and anxiety that can trigger shortness of breath)
- Maintaining any oxygen equipment you use
- Avoiding smoking and second-hand smoke
- Avoiding or reducing your contact with chemicals that irritate lungs, such as paint fumes or car exhaust
- Losing weight
To understand what’s causing your shortness of breath, diagnostic tests are an option. This could range from a physical exam to a blood test, or a chest scan. Exercise tests involve measuring blood pressure, heart rate, and any changes to your breathing rate both at rest and when you’re exercising.
An electrocardiogram (EKG) measures electric signals from your heart. This test can determine the speed at which your heart beats and the health of its rhythm. An EKG can also diagnose a heart attack. Chest scans, including X-rays and CT scans, can diagnose pneumonia or lung diseases. A lung function test, called spirometry, can help diagnose COPD or asthma. This test measures the amount of air you can blow in and out of your lungs and the speed at which you can do it. Another test, pulse oximetry, measures how much oxygen is in your blood.
A treatment plan will depend on the underlying cause. A customized exercise plan, a medication that relaxes your airways, or oxygen therapy could be part of your treatment. You might be prescribed an inhaler for an asthma diagnosis. Fluid in your lungs might need draining. Diagnoses including blood clots or infection may need medication. Speak with your primary care provider about what may be the best approach.