1 Dyspnea Summary

Do you feel short of breath? You may have dyspnea. It is a medical term for difficulty or labored breathing. Dyspnea is a symptom and can be caused by various conditions. Having intense tightening in the chest, the sensation of hunger for air, or feeling of suffocation are all termed as dyspnea. 

Dyspnea can be mild or severe. Mild dyspnea often goes unnoticed, especially if it occurs rarely. You have severe dyspnea if you find yourself gasping for air, feeling of inability to breathe or impending sense of doom.

Dyspnea may occur alone or with other symptoms. Dyspnea with other symptoms should be checked by the doctor. You must also see a doctor if you experience severe or repeated shortness of breath or breathlessness. 

Babies exhibiting any signs and symptoms of dyspnea should also be checked by the doctor immediately. Babies and small children showing signs or symptoms of distress or difficulty breathing should not be ignored.

In many cases, dyspnea can occur even if you are perfectly healthy. It often occurs in individuals with poor tolerance to exercise and those who are obese. Dyspnea is a symptom of heavy exertion. 

Kids and adults (except babies) usually have short episodes of dyspnea due to intense exercise or while doing strenuous physical activities. Sometimes, you can have dyspnea while experiencing intense emotions or after witnessing accidents.

Dyspnea is not normal if it occurs without reason or unexpectedly. Several medical conditions can cause dyspnea as a symptom. Some of these conditions include diseases of the lungs, heart, or problems in the nervous system. Dyspnea is also caused by injuries to the rib, choking, or inhaled foreign object. Any condition or situation that blocks the airways can cause dyspnea.

Chronic or frequent dyspnea can cause significant disability. You cannot perform certain physically-demanding tasks at work or at home if you are running out of breath. In some individuals, dyspnea is so severe that they cannot walk few meters. 

Some experience dyspnea that is so severe that they cannot perform tasks such as dressing or leaving the house. Sometimes, people with dyspnea experience emotional issues such as anxiety from it.

Dyspnea suspected to be caused by medical conditions should be examined by the doctor. The cause of dyspnea is diagnosed and other symptoms are examined as well. To do this, your doctor may have to consider several tests and examine your organ systems for problems. Most of the causes of dyspnea are easily found.

Addressing the cause of dyspnea treats the condition. Depending on the cause, treating dyspnea can be simple or complicated. It can be as simple as removing blockage out of the airway.

In the case of acute severe dyspnea, the first priority is to keep airways open and ensure that enough oxygen reaches your lungs. Dyspnea caused by medical conditions require more work up Lung problems must be treated with therapy or medicines. Dyspnea caused by heart or liver problems also require more tests and treatments.

Dyspnea can be easy or difficult to treat. Dyspnea is just a symptom, so its cause must be thoroughly investigated and addressed.

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2 Causes

Several things cause dyspnea. Dyspnea is a reaction of the body when there is too much carbon dioxide in the blood, which should be eliminated when we breathe. Dyspnea can occur in healthy people as well.

You can experience dyspnea with strenuous exercise or intense physical activities. Aerobics, running, hiking, lifting heavy loads, sports, or physically demanding work tasks can wear you out and cause dyspnea if done for too long periods. Dyspnea is often present in elderly and obese individuals. This is usually normal and not a cause for concern.

Sometimes, dyspnea occurs when you experience severe emotional distress. Children or adults who are crying excessively may experience dyspnea. Very high emotions or anxiety may also cause dyspnea. Some experience shortness of breath or gasping for air after witnessing big events, like accidents, natural disasters, or even concerts. This is often normal.

Some cases of dyspnea have causes that should be investigated. Dyspnea can be a symptom of airway obstruction, like in the case of choking or presence of a foreign object in the airways.

The bronchus, the main airway connecting the two lungs, has a somewhat small opening. The gag reflex and epiglottis largely prevents food or other foreign objects from plugging the bronchus, but sometimes these safeguards fail.

Dyspnea can be one of the symptoms of generalized anxiety disorder. Some people with anemia may also experience episodes of dyspnea.

Injuries can sometimes cause dyspnea. Injuries or accidents may crush or collapse a lung or break a rib that may cause dyspnea. Sudden blood loss can also cause shortness of breath.

Dyspnea can be a symptom of more serious problems in the heart, lungs, or nerves. The heart pumps blood throughout the body and is very sensitive to oxygen levels in the bloodstream.

Here are the heart conditions that cause dyspnea as a symptom:

  • Heart attack
  • Heart failure, or inability of the heart to pump enough blood to meet body’s needs
  • Cardiomyopathy, or abnormal problems in the heart muscle
  • Pericarditis, or the swelling of membranes surrounding the heart
  • Cardiac tamponade, or excess fluid around the heart
  • Very low blood volume coming into the heart
  • Other issues of the heart, such as irregular heart rhythm (arrhythmia)

Many lung problems can cause dyspnea. The lungs are responsible for putting oxygen into the blood. Therefore, any problem in the functioning of the lung can cause dyspnea.

Here are the lung disorders that often cause dyspnea:

Here are other conditions that may cause dyspnea:

3 Diagnosis and Treatment

Dyspnea is a very common reason why people refer themselves to the hospital, specifically the emergency department. Patients reporting dyspnea should be checked for blockage of the airway.

Dyspnea often requires a lot of tests, especially if the doctor suspects problems in the heart, lungs, or other organs. Doctors can easily see if you have dyspnea. You need to tell the doctor all your accompanying symptoms.

Your doctor will ask about your medical history, which means you have to state your previous treatments and medicines taken. Your doctor will perform a thorough medical history and several lab tests.

In many cases, your doctor may order specific tests and imaging procedures if he or she suspects a problem in your heart or lungs. Tests are done to check for heart problems. You may have to submit blood or sputum samples to check for the presence of infection in the blood or lungs.

Imaging procedures include chest x-rays, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) or computerized tomography (CT) scan. In the case of heart conditions, the doctor may perform a cardiac catheterization.

Cardiac catheterization involves inserting a thin tube threaded into your blood vessels until it reaches your heart. Cardiac catheterization is used to diagnose and treat heart problems.

If the doctor suspects nerve problems, he or she may perform tests such as nerve conduction studies, electromyography, and neurological examination.

Treating dyspnea depends on the cause. The cause of dyspnea should be addressed to treat it. The initial treatment to patients reporting shortness of breath is to give oxygen via breathing mask. Extra oxygen is needed if you have heart or lung conditions causing dyspnea.

If there is a blockage in the airway, doctors remove it manually or using the help of simple instruments. Blockage deep down the lower airways, which is nearer the lungs, may require more invasive treatments.

If heart or lung problems are the cause of dyspnea, these conditions are addressed. Dyspnea is often caused by heart failure. Heart failure occurs when the heart cannot pump enough blood to meet body’s needs, and it can be caused by other conditions.

Lung problems that commonly cause dyspnea include pneumonia, asthma, COPD, or pulmonary hypertension. These conditions are treated separately. Depending on the cause, dyspnea itself is treated with oxygen and medicines.

The following can be prescribed by doctors to treat dyspnea:

  • Steroids work by reducing swelling of the airway to ease flows of air.
  • Diuretics or water pills promote loss of water, which is useful in reducing excess fluid around the lungs or the heart.
  • Anxiolytics are medicines that relieve anxiety. Reducing anxiety also reduces oxygen demands of the body to relieve dyspnea.

There are home care techniques to relieve dyspnea. Pulmonary rehabilitation is a set of breathing techniques, exercises, muscle strengthening and pacing to reduce symptoms.

For acute bouts of dyspnea, practice pursed-lip breathing. Pursed-lip breathing requires you to inhale through the nose and slowly exhale through the mouth. Sitting position leaning on the elbows helps you breathe more easily too.

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