Shortness of breath, or dyspnea, is a common symptom in which the person feels breathless or have difficulty in breathing. It is one of the most common causes of hospital or emergency room visit.
The experience of breathlessness may vary with the individual and the underlying condition that causes dyspnea. Exercise and high altitudes increase the breathing rate under normal conditions.
The increase in breath rate increases the discomfort in a person. The rate may also increase in several disorders. Increased breathing rate is often accompanied by a sensation of lack of air for breathing.
It makes the person feel unable to breathe fast or deep enough to supply oxygen. They often need to apply more effort to expand the chest to inhale and exhale. Before the exhalation of air, they may feel an urgent need to inhale.
Most cases of dyspnea are caused by issues of heart and lungs. Both these organs are involved in the transport of oxygen to different parts of the body, and problems with these may affect breathing rate and depth.
Shortness of breath may have a sudden onset or be chronic, causing long-term difficulty in breathing. Sudden onset of shortness of breath requires medical attention as it may be associated with problems in airways or heart.
Acute shortness of breath has a sudden onset and is caused by conditions like:
- Respiratory tract infections – infections like pneumonia cause sudden difficulty in breathing and is often associated with other symptoms like fever and cough.
- Anaphylaxis – anaphylaxis is a very severe allergic reaction and is characterized by itching, swelling, rashes and other symptoms.
- Asthma – asthma is one of the common causes of acute shortness of breath, and has to wheeze as one of the symptoms.
- Blockage in respiratory tract – inhaling a foreign object may block the respiratory tract, leading to shortness of breath.
- Blood clot – blockages in an artery of lungs like a clot leads to insufficient supply of air, leading to breathlessness.
- Collapsed lung – this condition is characterized by filling of air in the space outside the lungs, affecting the expansion of organ during breathing.
- Interrupted blood flow to heart – it often happens during a heart attack and is associated with other symptoms like pain and pressure in the chest.
- Heart failure – inability of the heart to pump blood to different parts of the body leads to breathlessness.
- Pregnancy – shortness of breath is a normal change associated with pregnancy.
Chronic shortness of breath is caused by:
- Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease
- Interstitial lung disease
- Pulmonary hypertension
The underlying condition of shortness of breath is diagnosed based on medical history, physical examination, and other symptoms.
Some of the tests that help in the identification of cause include:
- Blood tests like hematocrit
- Chest x-ray
Treatment of shortness of breath depends on the underlying cause of the condition. Supplemental oxygen helps people who have low blood oxygen level. Mechanical ventilation is suggested for people who cannot breathe deeply or rapidly enough to supply oxygen to different parts.