Healthy Living

Is Dyspnea (Shortness of Breath) a Warning Sign of a Serious Condition?

Is Dyspnea (Shortness of Breath) a Warning Sign of a Serious Condition?

Breathing is a critical function of life, and anything that obstructs this function can be extremely difficult to deal with. There are several conditions that can cause alterations in our breathing pattern.

Dyspnea, or shortness of breath, is one such condition. Shortness of breath has many causes affecting either the passages of the respiratory system that facilitate breathing, the lungs, or the cardiovascular system that comprises of the heart and the blood vessels. This is why it is important for you to consult a physician at the earliest, especially if your symptoms seem to persist over prolonged periods.

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As per the normal ranges specified, an adult weighing an average of 150 pounds is likely to breathe at an average rate of 14 breaths per minute. A faster breathing rate is known as hyperventilation, while a reduced breathing rate or shortness of breath is also known as dyspnea.

Doctors get further into a detailed classification of this condition as dyspnea that occurs when one is resting or that occurs as one is indulging in some form of physical activity or exercise.

A detailed diagnosis will also help one understand if the condition occurs suddenly or gradually. All these are important to understanding the exact reason that could be behind the dyspnea.

When this condition happens out of exertion or intense physical activity, then it is not seen as such an alarming sign compared to this occurring when the body is at rest. Some of the normal causes of shortness of breath include heavy exercises, very high or very low temperatures, obesity, and high altitudes. These can trigger dyspnea in a healthy person.

Beyond these causes, any signs of dyspnea could be an indication of an upcoming serious medical condition. In case you are experiencing sudden shortness of breath or if it gets worse, then you may need a medical opinion as soon as possible to rule out any underlying medical conditions.

When is Shortness of Breath a Medical Emergency?

Shortness of breath is a very common medical complaint that accounts for almost 13% of emergency room visits. A number of diseases could manifest with dyspnea surfacing as the most prominent symptom. Some of these conditions include pneumonia, heart failure, COPD, pneumothorax, asthma, and so on.

Symptoms of shortness of breath or dyspnea can be easily classified into five primary categories, including due to cardiac reasons, due to pulmonary reasons, resulting from abnormalities or dysfunction of the central nervous system, blood disorders, and neuromuscular disorders.

Unfortunately, most patients complaining of shortness of breath have various medical issues that exist together. This makes diagnosing the exact cause of the dyspnea difficult for the treating doctors. Certain imaging scans, like X-Rays, and blood tests have to be performed to get to the exact condition that could be resulting in the shortness of breath. Patients suffering from multiple disorders could have more than one of their medical conditions being responsible for their symptoms of shortness of breath.

The three most common reasons of respiratory distress account for shortness of breath in most patients. These conditions include pneumonia, cardiac failure, and COPD. Diagnosing these as the cause of the shortness of breath in a patient primarily depends upon the medical history of the patient and a physical checkup of the patient. In most cases, the symptoms often overlap in these diseases; for instance, shortness of breath may be accompanied by other signs and symptoms, like a cough and strange breathing sounds, like wheezing.

This makes diagnosing the condition extremely difficult, which is why the patient is often kept under observation for a while to help determine if the subject is indeed suffering from dyspnea.


Pneumonia is a medical condition that affects the respiratory system and is often seen as the main disease behind respiratory distress. Pneumonia often strikes older adults who are dealing with a number of chronic ailments. It is also a common disease that affects young children with compromised immunity levels.

Pneumonia impacts the breathing function by attacking the lungs and causing white patches that indicate reduced functioning of the lungs. This, in turn, results in severe dyspnea or shortness of breath and is often a medical emergency with a patient, requiring immediate oxygen support. Often the patient would be put on full life support, with the condition being monitored around the clock.

Moreover, as the pneumonia progresses, the patient is likely to develop severe dyspnea, and this is on account of the fact that the lung sacs are filled with fluid, thereby stressing the lungs and impairing them from functioning normally. As a result, the patient is not able to draw in a full breath, since the lungs are compromised, and this further results in dyspnea.

Often patients critically ill with pneumonia experience dyspnea as their lungs get increasingly compromised; this is why doctors often take note of the presence of dyspnea, as it can indicate whether the patient is critically ill or not.

Cardiac Failure

A cardiac failure is the failure of the heart to pump and supply adequate blood to the various parts of the body to perform everyday functions of the body. Cardiac failure is becoming very common among people as they grow older or due to unhealthy lifestyle and stress.

People who are undergoing a heart failure have severe symptoms, like sudden weight gain, increased shortness of breath, sleep difficulties, and so on. Along with an acute cardiac failure, respiratory distress also leads to severe dyspnea.

If you are experiencing shortness of breath over prolonged periods of time along with sleep difficulty, you need to consult a specialist right away. The inability to sleep properly is on account of the dyspnea and is indicative of more serious health issues.

You need to consult a specialist and present your medical history, as well as your current issues. A speedy diagnosis is vital, especially since this form of dyspnea can be related to your cardio health, and a fast diagnosis can help you seek effective treatment for the same right away.


COPD is a severe disease that affects the pulmonary function of the body. It causes an obstruction in the airways and causes them to swell up, thereby resulting in severe breathing distress. Patients suffering from symptoms of COPD often complain of shortness of breath, severe coughing, and increased production of sputum. These cases are more prevalent in the winter, when viral and bacterial infections are on the rise.

Dyspnea resulting from COPD could require you to seek immediate medical attention on an emergency basis. You would need to consult your physician right away since COPD is a serious enough condition that if left untreated could result in severe health complications.

When Should You See a Doctor?

It is an emergency when you or your loved one is suffering from severe shortness of breath that is either sudden or worsening gradually. Immediately dial 911 or any other local emergency number to seek medical attention at the hospital emergency room. In most cases of severe shortness of breath, the condition develops suddenly into a critical emergency condition and impacts one’s ability to function normally.

If you are suffering from any form of respiratory disorder, it is always best to consult a doctor before the situation turns into an emergency. It is also important to find out from your doctor what steps should be taken in the case of an emergency situation. 

Immediately rush to the emergency care of a healthcare facility if you are experiencing symptoms like pain in the chest, fainting, nausea, and so on, since these could be the first signs of a bigger medical emergency, like a heart attack or a pulmonary embolism.

It is always a good idea to keep yourself briefed about the emergency procedure, the nearest hospitals, and the care they provide. Make sure that you head over to your physician or to the emergency room upon experiencing severe shortness of breath along with chest pains. This is indicative of a cardio issue, and it is essential that you get this looked at before the condition worsens.

Identifying the symptoms at the start can go a long way in preventing a medical emergency from occurring. Hence, speak to your doctor about your dyspnea condition if it is accompanied by any one or more of the symptoms mentioned below:

  • Inflammation or swelling in the feet and the ankles – If you feel your ankles and feet swelling up, along with shortness of breath, then it is an indication that something’s seriously wrong with you. Schedule an appointment with your doctor right away and get yourself checked out. Your doctor may run a few tests, including a blood test to rule out some of the more serious health conditions.
  • Difficulty breathing when you lie down flat on your back – This is often indicative of something more serious, since you may experience dyspnea when working out or exercising. However, if you continue to experience the same when you are at complete rest, then something is wrong, and it could even be related to an underlying cardio health issue. Head over to the emergency room or your physician's office and inform them regarding the same. The doctor would run a few tests and confirm the diagnosis, after which he would prescribe effective treatment to help treat the same.
  • Sudden temperature changes, chills, and severe cough – If you find yourself experiencing chills, sudden temperature changes, and shortness of breath along with coughing, then it is advisable that you consult your doctor right away. The shortness of breath accompanied with coughing is often indicative of something more serious. Get a complete medical checkup done as soon as possible.
  • Wheezing – While various health conditions can cause you to wheeze uncontrollably, if it is accompanied by shortness of breath, then it is indicative of something else altogether. Head over to the emergency room right away and get yourself checked out. It is only after an accurate diagnosis of the underlying health condition that you can get effectively treated.
  • Worsening of your existing condition of shortness of breath – If you find that your current shortness of breathing has worsened as of late, then you may want to consult a specialist as soon as possible.

Preventing Shortness of Breath from Worsening

A visit to the doctor is essential so that he can monitor your current health condition and your shortness of breath. He may prescribe a new treatment or new drugs to prevent the shortness of breath from worsening altogether.

To help keep chronic shortness of breath from getting worse, if you suffer from chronic shortness of breath, then you can, in consultation with your doctor, seek more effective forms of treatment to help prevent it from getting any worse.

  • Avoid smoking: Smoking is one habit that does more harm than good. Once you are addicted to smoking habits, heart disease, lung disease, and cancer find their way into your life slowly. If you continue to suffer from chronic shortness of breath, smoking or chain smoking can only serve to exacerbate your condition. Smoking impairs and reduces the effective functioning of your lungs. Therefore, smoking cigarettes when you suffer from shortness of breath would only serve to further compromise your lungs and your health, as well.
  • Avoid exposure to harmful pollutants: As far as possible, avoid breathing harmful toxins and allergens found in the atmosphere, which could trigger dyspnea. It is not uncommon for patients to develop sudden dyspnea on coming into contact with an allergen. Therefore, if you are prone to shortness of breath, make sure that you avoid all substances of which you are allergic to prevent any further outbreaks of dyspnea. If you are not sure about your allergies, then ask your physician to run a complete allergy test, which should give you an idea of what to avoid.
  • Avoid being overweight: Being overweight can considerably increase your risk of developing shortness of breath, and hence, if you are overweight, you should exercise and lose the extra weight. It goes without saying that if you are overweight, you may find that even the smallest task overtaxes your body, leading to dyspnea. Take corrective measures and, moreover, being overweight makes you susceptible to various health problems and puts you at greater risk of cancer and cardiovascular diseases.
  • Know your medical condition: If you are suffering from any specific diseases, it is important to take care of your medical condition to prevent it from worsening. Speak to your doctor about your condition and symptoms, and know what you can do to keep your condition in complete control. Make sure that you keep your doctor informed regarding your complete medical history and the medications you are taking for your current conditions. Your physician needs this information to make an accurate diagnosis concerning the underlying cause of your dyspnea and to prescribe the right treatment. He would definitely need the list of medications you may be currently taking, since this may impede or even react with any of the medications he may prescribe for your dyspnea.

It is important that you keep your doctor in the loop; apart from this, there are other measures you can take to improve your overall health. You can opt for a nutrient-rich diet and even consume super foods like chia seeds, as they can improve your health while enabling weight loss. Make sure to keep fit, as it can help your body to stave off infections.