Most cases of shortness of breath are due to heart or lung conditions. Your heart and lungs are involved in transporting oxygen to your tissues and removing carbon dioxide, and problems with either of these processes affect your breathing.
Shortness of breath that comes on suddenly (called acute) has a limited number of causes, including:
In the case of shortness of breath that has lasted for weeks or longer (called chronic), the condition is most often due to:
A number of other health conditions also can make it hard to get enough air. These include:
Having prior lung diseases, muscle weakness, low hemoglobin, being out of shape from lack of exercise or illness, severe obesity, and continued exposure to asthma triggers are some examples. Smoking is a major risk factor as it causes diseases that result in shortness of breath.
Some people with respiratory problems can feel breathless just by doing normal activities like getting out of a chair or walking to another room. See your medical professional if your shortness of breath is accompanied by:
Your doctor will examine you and listen carefully to your lungs. You might have a lung function test, called spirometry, to measure how much air you can blow in and out of your lungs and how fast you do it. This can help diagnose asthma and COPD.
Other tests you might have include:
Treatment will depend on the cause of the problem.
A person who is short of breath due to overexertion will probably get their breath back once they stop and relax.
In more severe cases, supplemental oxygen will be needed. Those with asthma or COPD may have an inhaled rescue bronchodilator to use when necessary.
For those with chronic conditions, such as COPD, a health care provider will work with the individual to help them breathe more easily.
This will involve developing a treatment plan that helps to prevent acute episodes and slow down progression of the overall disease.
If dyspnea is linked to asthma, it typically responds well to medications such as bronchodilators and steroids.
When it is due to an infection such as bacterial pneumonia, antibiotics can bring relief.
Other medications, such as opiates, non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), and anti-anxiety drugs, can also be effective.
Breathing troubles stemming from COPD can improve with special breathing techniques, such as pursed-lip breathing and breathing muscle strengthening exercises.
People can learn how to do these on pulmonary rehabilitation programs.
The Dyspnea Lab, a research center specializing in shortness of breath, report that people find these programs helpful, even if the root causes of the problem remains.
If tests indicate low levels of oxygen in the blood, supplemental oxygen may be supplied. However, not everyone with shortness of breath will have low blood oxygen levels.
According to the Dyspnea Lab, many people with dyspnea find that a gentle stream of cool air around the head and face helps improve their symptoms.
Individuals with dyspnea can take measures to improve their overall health and give themselves more breathing room.