Dyspnea is the clinical term for shortness of breath or breathlessness experienced by both healthy individuals and patients with respiratory or cardiovascular diseases. It can also be a temporary condition that quickly resolves on its own or a symptom of a more serious health condition.
A healthy person may experience dyspnea due to the following factors:
- Strenuous exercises
- Morbid obesity
- Extreme temperatures
- High altitude
Other than these factors, dyspnea is more likely a sign of a medical problem. Immediately see your doctor if you suddenly experience unexplained and severe shortness of breath. Most cases of dyspnea are caused by lung or heart problems since the lungs and heart are involved in the body's oxygen transport system, the removal of carbon dioxide from the body, and the problems that affect the breathing process.
Acute or sudden shortness of breath tends to have a limited number of causes. They include:
- Asthma - Asthma is a respiratory problem, which involves the narrowing of the airways, including swelling and the production of extra mucus. Increasing shortness of breath, coughing, wheezing, and chest tightness are the symptoms often experienced by individuals with acute asthma attacks.
- Carbon monoxide (CO) poisoning - CO is an odorless and tasteless gas produced when fuel is burned in cars, engines, grills, stoves, gas ranges, furnaces, fireplaces, or lanterns. Carbon monoxide poisoning happens when too much CO is inhaled. Its symptoms include shortness of breath, headache, vomiting, weakness, dizziness, confusion, and chest pain. Being exposed to large amounts of CO can cause seizures, fainting, arrhythmias, and even death.
- Cardiac tamponade (excess fluid around the heart) - Also known as pericardial tamponade, cardiac tamponade is a life-threatening condition, wherein fluids or blood fill the space between the heart muscle and the sac that covers the heart. Some of its symptoms include shortness of breath, chest pain, weakness, low blood pressure, fainting, and dizziness, among others.
- Heart attack - Although not all heart attacks are the same, shortness of breath is one of the warning signs of a heart attack. Heart pumping and breathing are closely related. The heart pumps blood to supply oxygen and nutrients to all tissues and organs of the body. If the heart is unable to properly pump blood, an individual will experience shortness of breath.
- Heart failure - Another common symptom of heart failure is shortness of breath. It is a progressive condition, wherein the heart muscle cannot pump sufficient blood to supply the body's blood and oxygen requirement. In short, the heart fails to keep up with its workload.
- Hypotension - It means low blood pressure. Although hypotension causes no problem for some people, it can, however, cause fainting, shortness of breath, or dizziness for many people.
- Pneumonia and other respiratory infections - Individuals with these lung conditions often experience breathing problems, such as the feeling of being short of breath.
- Pneumothorax (collapsed lung) - It is the buildup of air in the chest, which causes the lung to separate from the thoracic or chest wall. One of its symptoms is shortness of breath.
- Pulmonary embolism - It is an acute lung artery blockage, which is usually caused by a blood clot in the legs called deep vein thrombosis. The blood clot breaks loose and reaches the lungs through the bloodstream. This condition causes low levels of blood oxygen, which can damage other organs in the body. Large or many clots can quickly cause life-threatening problems or death.
- Acute blood loss - Sudden loss of blood can quickly cause anemia, which can make a person weak, pale, and short of breath. Acute blood loss is often associated with trauma, subacute or acute gastrointestinal (GI) bleeding, or surgery.
- Upper airway obstruction - It is a blockage that occurs in the upper airway, that could prevent the body from getting sufficient oxygen.
Chronic dyspnea is when people experience shortness of breath for more than a month. Below are some of the causes of chronic dyspnea:
- COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease)
- Interstitial lung disease (ILD)
- Heart failure
Other medical conditions that can also cause shortness of breath include:
Lung and Heart Conditions
- Lung cancer
- Croup in young children
- Pulmonary hypertension
- Pulmonary fibrosis
- Pulmonary edema
- Heart failure
- Heart arrhythmias
Other Health Issues
- Choking or inhaled foreign object
- Generalized anxiety disorder
- Broken ribs
- Myasthenia gravis
- Guillain-Barre syndrome
When to Seek Medical Attention
Seek emergency help if you experience an acute or sudden shortness of breath along with the following:
- Impaired mobility or function
- Dyspnea with chest pain
Consult a doctor if you experience shortness of breath along with the following signs and symptoms:
- Pre-existing or worsening shortness of breath
- Swollen ankles or feet
- High fever with chills
- Difficulty breathing when lying down
Chronic shortness of breath can be managed with the following self-care practices:
- Lose weight if you are overweight or obese.
- Quit smoking to significantly reduce your risk of lung and heart diseases, including cancer.
- Avoid environmental toxins and breathing allergens as much as possible.
- Take care and seek treatment if you have an underlying medical condition.
- If your symptoms get worse, speak with your doctor and create an action plan.
- Try to avoid places with elevations that are higher than 1,524 meters or 5,000 feet.
- Regularly check if your supplemental oxygen supply is sufficient, as well as the overall functioning of the equipment.
A number of health problems can be avoided if a healthy weight is maintained. Speak with your healthcare provider if need weight loss help. A dietitian or nutritionist can help you change your eating habits and help plan your meals.
The Bottom Line
Dyspnea or shortness of breath is a common symptom that is often associated with multiple diseases, including serious ones. Lung and heart diseases are the most common causes of dyspnea, as well as anxiety disorders, obesity, and anemia, among others.
Dyspnea can also be acute or chronic. Acute dyspnea should be regarded as a medical emergency, since this condition often involves life-threatening conditions, such as a sudden worsening of COPD, heart failure, acute asthma attack, pulmonary embolism, or pneumothorax (a collapsed lung).