Dyspnea, also known as shortness of breath, is a sensation of breathing discomfort. Activation of several pathways can lead to the sensation of breathlessness. Increased work of breathing, stimulation of the receptors of the upper or lower airway, or chest wall, and excessive stimulation of the respiratory center by central and peripheral chemoreceptors can often lead to this sensation. These stimuli are transferred to the central nervous system via respiratory muscle and vagal afferents and are then processed in the context of the affective state, attention, and prior experience of the patient, resulting in dyspnea. Here is everything you need to know about dyspnea.
An episode of dyspnea is not always related to an individual's health. A person can feel short of breath after intense exercise, when traveling to a high altitude, or going through temperature changes. However, dyspnea usually relates to health problems. Sometimes, it is just a case of being out of shape, and exercise can improve symptoms. But dyspnea can be a sign of a serious health issue. The most common causes of dyspnea are asthma, heart failure, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, interstitial lung disease, pneumonia, and psychogenic problems that are usually linked to anxiety. If shortness of breath starts suddenly, it is called an acute case of dyspnea.
Acute dyspnea could be due to:
- Choking on or inhaling something that blocks breathing passageways
- Serious loss of blood
- Heart failure
People describe shortness of breath in different ways. Some people say they feel "hungry for air." Others say they feel as though they "cannot breathe deeply enough" and some perhaps feel a sense of chest tightness that impairs breathing. When you experience shortness of breath, you should pay attention to the sensations you feel and try to be as specific as possible when describing these sensations to your doctor. If your shortness of breath varies with position, for example it comes on when you lie flat, this may be a clue to certain types of problems like the build-up of fluid in the lungs.
A doctor will normally be able to diagnose dyspnea based on a complete physical examination of the person, along with a full description of their experiences. A person will need to explain how their attacks of dyspnea started, how long they last, how frequently they occur, and how severe they are. Doctors may use chest X-rays and computed tomography (CT) images to make a more specific diagnosis of dyspnea and evaluate the health of the person's heart, lungs, and related systems. An electrocardiogram (ECG) will show up any signs of a heart attack. Additional tests will look at the level of oxygen in a patient's blood, and the blood's capacity to carry oxygen.
To help keep chronic shortness of breath from getting worse:
- Stop smoking. Once you're tobacco-free, your risks of heart and lung disease and cancer begin to drop.
- Avoid exposure to pollutants.
- Lose weight if you are overweight.
- Have an action plan. Discuss with your doctor what to do if your symptoms become worse.
The outlook for people with dyspnea depends on the cause. If the underlying condition can be treated and improved, such as pneumonia or asthma, then breathing problems may be eliminated or greatly reduced. However, if shortness of breath is due to serious or chronic diseases that worsen over time, such as heart disease or COPD, improvement may be limited. Patients with dyspnea need to work with their doctors to develop and follow a comprehensive treatment plan.