Not being able to breathe properly or get enough air must be one of the most frightening experiences ever. Medically known as dyspnea, shortness of breath can be felt in different ways by different people and is actually and often a symptom of some underlying cause. It can be experienced as an intense feeling of chest tightening or a feeling of suffocation. People can experience shortness of breath constantly or have a single episode of it; all depends on the cause of it.

Some of the common causes of shortness of breath or breathlessness include: Extremely rigorous exercise, massive obesity, extreme temperatures and high altitude; all these things can cause shortness of breath in an otherwise healthy person. There could be other medical causes behind shortness of breath, which could be potentially serious if treatment is not sought on time. If you have been experiencing sudden and unexplained shortness of breath, particularly if it comes on suddenly and is severe, then you need to consult your doctor ASAP.

Treatment for shortness of breath depends on the cause of the breathlessness.

Causes of Shortness of Breath

Causes of Shortness of Breath

Some of the common medical causes of shortness of breath or breathlessness are lung or heart conditions. The heart and lungs are responsible for transporting oxygen to the tissues and in removing carbon dioxide. Any problems with these processes can cause breathlessness or shortness of breath. A person can have sudden and unexpected shortness of breath from many health conditions.

Causes of sudden shortness of breath include:

Any problem with the Airway or the Lungs can cause Shortness of Breath or Breathlessness

  • A person can experience sudden breathlessness from an asthma attack. In this condition, the airways become narrowed and start producing phlegm in increased quantity, causing wheezing and coughing. Patient becomes breathless due to difficulty in moving air in and out of the airways. Treatment comprises of using a spacer device with an asthma inhaler. This helps in delivering more amount of medicine to the lungs, thus relieving breathlessness.
  • Inflammation of the lung, medically known as pneumonia, also causes shortness of breath and cough. As this occurs due to an infection, antibiotics are the first line of treatment.
  • Breathlessness in patients suffering from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is an indication that this condition has suddenly worsened.

Heart Problems as a Cause for Shortness of Breath or Breathlessness

  • Sometimes individuals can experience "silent" heart attack where the obvious symptoms of heart attack, such as chest pain and excessive anxiety are absent. In such cases, shortness of breath can be the indication of a heart attack. In such cases, patients are given aspirin and admitted to a hospital right away.
  • Heart failure also causes difficulty in breathing. This is a life-threatening situation and it means that the heart is having problem in pumping sufficient blood to the rest of the body. This happens because the heart muscle has become very weak or stiff and does not work as efficiently like before. This also leads to accumulation of fluid in the lungs, which worsens breathing difficulties. Treatment comprises of a combination of medicines or surgery along with lifestyle changes which help in better pumping of the heart and helps in relieving breathlessness.
  • Problems with the heart rhythm or rate can also cause breathlessness. This condition is known as atrial fibrillation where a person has fast and irregular heart beat. Supraventricular tachycardia is another condition where a person has fast and regular heart rate.

Anxiety or Panic Attack as a Cause for Shortness of Breath or Breathlessness

Anxiety or panic attack causes a person to take rapid breaths. This is known as hyperventilating. If a person tries to breathe slowly with concentration or breathes through a paper bag, then it helps in bringing the breathing back to normal.

Some of the other causes of sudden shortness of breath or breathlessness include:

  • Anaphylaxis, which is a severe allergic reaction can cause breathlessness.
  • Pulmonary embolism is a condition where there is blockage in the lungs’ blood vessels causing one to be short of breath.
  • Pneumothorax, which is a condition where there is partial collapse of the lung due to a small tear in the surface of the lung. This leads to trapping of air in the space surrounding the lungs.
  • Idiopathic Pulmonary Fibrosis is a rare and not clearly understood condition of the lung where there is scarring of the lungs causing breathlessness.
  • Pleural effusion is accumulation of fluid near the lung leading to breathlessness.

Causes of Long-Term Breathlessness

  • Being unfit or obese/overweight often causes a person to be short of breath.
  • Poorly controlled or chronic asthma causes shortness of breath or breathlessness.
  • Anemia is a condition where there are low levels of oxygen in the blood due to insufficient hemoglobin or red blood cells.
  • COPD or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease where there is permanent damage to the lungs from prolonged smoking causes breathlessness.
  • Heart rate or rhythm problems, such as atrial fibrillation or supraventricular tachycardia.
  • Heart failure is a condition where the heart is not able to pump sufficient blood to the body. This happens because the heart muscle has become stiff or weak.
  • Bronchiectasis is a lung condition where there is abnormal widening of the airways with the patient having persistent and phlegm filled cough causing breathlessness.
  • Lung cancer causing partial collapse of the lung.
  • Pulmonary embolism where there is recurrent blockage in the lung’s blood vessel.
  • Narrowing of the main valve of the heart, which causes restriction in the blood circulation to the body.
  • Panic attacks which occur frequently where the patient hyperventilates.
  • Pleural effusion is the accumulation of fluid adjacent to the lung causes shortness of breath or breathlessness

Other than the Above Mentioned Causes for Shortness of Breath or Breathlessness, Some of the other Causes include:

  • Carbon Monoxide Poisoning: one of its symptoms include breathing problems.
  • High altitudes. People do experience respiratory issues like breathing faster or being short of breath on arriving at higher altitudes.
  • Cardiac tamponade also has difficulty breathing as one of its symptoms.
  • Hypotension (low blood pressure).
  • Heart attack.
  • Obstruction in the upper airway.
  • Cardiomyopathy.
  • Pericarditis.
  • Broken ribs causes difficulty breathing.
  • Choking leads to breathlessness.
  • Epiglottitis.
  • Inhalation of any foreign object can cause one to have shortness of breath.
  • Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD).
  • Myasthenia gravis.
  • Guillain-Barre syndrome can cause difficulty breathing if the inflammation affects the nerves of the chest and diaphragm.
  • Interstitial lung disease often causes breathlessness.
  • Croup causes shortness of breath in children.
  • Pleurisy: one of the symptoms of pleurisy is difficulty breathing.
  • Lung cancer.
  • Pulmonary edema often causes dyspnea or extreme shortness of breath and it becomes worse with lying down.
  • Pulmonary hypertension : One of the first signs of this condition is difficulty with breathing with activities like walking, climbing stairs etc.
  • Pulmonary fibrosis.
  • Tuberculosis.
  • Sarcoidosis. Some patients suffering from Sarcoidosis may experience being short of breath

Treatment for Shortness of Breath

As mentioned previously, shortness of breath is a symptom of some underlying condition. There are different treatments for different causes. Treatment depends on identifying what is causing one to be breathless and then planning out a treatment for it accordingly.

Written, Edited or Reviewed By:

, MD, FFARCSI

Last Modified On: July 7, 2015

Pain Assist Inc.

Pramod Kerkar
  Note: Information provided is not a substitute for physician, hospital or any form of medical care. Examination and Investigation is necessary for correct diagnosis.

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