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Shortness of breath is described as the difficulty or discomfort in breathing and the person feels like suffocating. It is medically known as dyspnea. It is a symptom which means a person himself will tell to the physician that he is having problem during breathing. Dyspnea has many causes broadly arising either from lungs or heart.

Causes of Shortness of breath

Most cases are due to some problem in the functioning of heart or lungs or air passages or blood vessels connecting the both. Lungs help in oxygenating the blood by adding oxygen from the environment and removing carbon dioxide from it and your heart pumps the blood from body to lungs and then back to the body. Since breathing is regulated by brain, if it does not get enough oxygen it changes the breathing pattern causing you discomfort. So complex interaction between oxygen, carbon dioxide level and hemoglobin is responsible for your shortness of breath.

When it occurs suddenly to you, it is called as acute shortness of breath and it causes are

  • Asthmatic episode
  • Heart attack
  • Allergic reactions (to a drug, bee sting etc.)
  • Blockage in your throat or upper airways
  • Carbon monoxide poisoning
  • Pneumonia
  • Pulmonary embolism (blood clots in the lungs)
  • Heart failure (does not pump enough blood to meet body demands)
  • Low blood pressure
  • Anemia (low red blood cell count)

When shortness of blood develops slowly over a period of time it is called as chronic such cases are due to:

  • Asthma
  • Abnormal functioning of heart
  • COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease)
  • Obesity
  • Some lung diseases
  • Pleurisy (inflammation of pleural membrane)
  • Pulmonary hypertension
  • Pulmonary edema
  • Croup (occurs mainly in Children)
  • Sarcoidosis
  • Tuberculosis

Causes of Shortness of breath

Risk factors for shortness of breath

These factors are responsible for the diseases whose one of the symptom is shortness of breath

Risk factors for Shortness of breath

Severity of shortness of breath

The severity of dyspnea depends upon many factors and is determined on the basis of

  • Frequency: Increasing episodes of shortness of breath indicates that the disease is worsening
  • Rest or exertion: Whether discomfort occurs at rest or only during exertional work like climbing upstairs. Dyspnea occurring at rest is of high severity.
  • Associated symptoms:  Your problem of shortness of breath can be accompanied by other signs and symptoms such as cough, blood in cough, episodes of fainting etc. All of which indicates high severity.

Diagnosis of shortness of breath

The basic approach of the physician is to find the cause of the dyspnea, so he will examine you physically, perform certain laboratory test on the basis of some clues and history and then he will be treating the underlying disease.

  • History: The physician will ask you certain question regarding severity of shortness of breath, which activities makes it worse, when it started, how it is progressing or are there any associated symptoms with it.
  • Physical examination:  Physician will check your vital parameters like blood pressure, heart rate, breathing rate and he will also listen to your lungs and heart sound. On the basis of the history as well as physical examinations finding he will advise some test to confirm the diagnosis.
  • Laboratory test: Normally advised test are generally blood test, chest X-ray, ECG and pulmonary function test.

Diagnosis of Shortness of breath


The treatment will depend upon the disease you are suffering from as the shortness of breath is highly vague symptoms associated with many diseases and these diseases have their own specific treatment. You should make appointment with your primary care doctor

Pulmonary Disease, Shortness of breath, Cardiology


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