Shortness of breath, medically known as dyspnea, is a common symptom with many possible causes. When you experience shortness of breath, it means you can’t get enough air.
You might feel like you can’t breathe in deeply enough or that you’re not getting enough oxygen. Shortness of breath can make it difficult to do everyday activities, such as walking or climbing stairs.
While often not a sign of a severe problem, dyspnea can indicate something more serious. Understanding the cause of shortness of breath is vital for getting the proper treatment.
What Causes Shortness of Breath?
The leading causes of shortness of breath are lung and heart problems. Healthy breathing is dependent on these organs to function appropriately and transport oxygen to your body.
Shortness of breath can last for a few days, which is acute, or longer than three to six months, which in that case is chronic.
Acute causes can include a sudden infection, such as pneumonia, a blockage in the airways from a foreign body, or a severe allergic reaction. Other possible causes of acute shortness of breath include heart attacks, strokes, and pulmonary embolisms.
Chronic causes of shortness of breath can be due to long-term health conditions such as asthma, COPD, or heart disease. Sometimes cancer can cause chronic shortness of breath, as can other diseases that affect the lungs or heart.
Can Shortness of Breath (Dyspnea) Lead to Death?
Shortness of breath (dyspnea) usually isn’t life-threatening in a healthy person. However, for people with certain health conditions, dyspnea can signify a life-threatening problem.
Dyspnea that develops after 30 minutes of rest may signify heart failure. If you have dyspnea and chest pain, it may be a sign of a heart attack.
Dyspnea that develops suddenly or worsens over time may be a sign of airway obstruction, such as asthma or COPD. Dyspnea that occurs with chest pain, rapid heartbeat, or sweating may signify a pulmonary embolism.
If you have any of these symptoms, seek medical help right away. Dyspnea can be dangerous if left untreated.
Who is at Risk for Dyspnea?
Dyspnea, shortness of breath that is often severe, affects people of all ages and backgrounds. However, some groups of people are at a higher risk for dyspnea than others.
People with asthma are at risk for dyspnea, especially if they are not well controlled. Smokers are also at risk, as smoking can damage the lungs and make breathing difficult.
Obese people may be at risk for dyspnea because they often have problems with their hearts and lungs.
People who are infected or who have anxiety may also experience dyspnea. Poor fitness can also lead to dyspnea and lung and heart problems.
How Will My Physician Diagnose Shortness of Breath?
If you are experiencing shortness of breath, your physician will likely perform a physical exam and order several blood tests. One standard test is pulse oximetry, which measures the amount of oxygen in your blood.
A chest X-ray may also be ordered to look for any abnormalities in your lungs. If your physician suspects you may have a heart problem, they may request a CT scan or other special imaging tests.
What are the Treatment Options for Shortness of Breath?
Treatment options depend on the cause of the dyspnea.
If the cause is an underlying medical condition, treatment of that condition may improve symptoms of shortness of breath. For example, if a person has congestive heart failure, medications to improve heart function may help to relieve shortness of breath.
If exercise is the cause of dyspnea, increasing activity levels gradually may help to improve symptoms. In some cases, oxygen therapy may be needed to help increase oxygen levels in the blood and improve breathing.
Medications such as bronchodilators or steroids may be prescribed to open up the airways and reduce inflammation in people with asthma or COPD who experience shortness of breath with activity.
How Can I Relieve or Manage Shortness of Breath?
There are several things you can do to help relieve or manage SOB:
- Quit smoking. Smoking is the leading cause of the chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), significantly contributing to SOB.
- Maintain a healthy weight. Being overweight or obese can make breathing more difficult.
- Avoid inhaling chemicals. Chemicals such as dust, smoke, and fumes can aggravate breathing problems.
- Avoid activities in humid or cold weather. Humid weather can aggravate respiratory problems, and cold weather can make breathing difficult.
- Practice breath control exercises. This can help you get more air in and out of your lungs.
- If you have difficulty breathing, make sure your oxygen equipment is working correctly and using it correctly.
How Seriously Does My Shortness of Breath Need to Be Before I See a Doctor?
Many people believe that if their shortness of breath is not severe, they do not need to see a doctor. This is not always the case. Several symptoms can accompany shortness of breath, which may require medical attention.
One such symptom is blue lips or fingers. If this occurs, it is crucial to seek medical attention right away, as it could be a sign of a severe condition such as cardiac arrest.
Another symptom to look out for is a high fever. Fever can be a sign of many different illnesses, some of which can be pretty serious. If your fever reaches 103 degrees or higher, you should seek medical help.
Swollen ankles can also be a sign that something is wrong. If one or both ankles become significantly swollen, it may indicate an underlying health problem. You should seek medical attention if this occurs.
In conclusion, there are many possible causes of shortness of breath. While some may be benign and easily treatable, others can be life-threatening. If you are experiencing shortness of breath, it is crucial to seek medical attention to determine the cause and appropriate treatment.