What Causes Shortness of Breath?

Couple of sensations are as frightening as not having the ability to get adequate air. Shortness of breath — known medically as dyspnea — is typically described as an intense tightening up in the chest, air appetite or a sensation of suffocation.

Really exhausting workout, severe temperature levels, massive weight problems and high elevation all can cause shortness of breath in a healthy individual. Beyond these examples, shortness of breath is likely a sign of a medical issue.

What Causes Shortness of Breath?

If you have unexplained shortness of breath, especially if it begins all of a sudden and is severe, see your doctor as quickly as possible.


The majority of cases of shortness of breath are because of heart or lung conditions. Your heart and lungs are involved in carrying oxygen to your tissues and getting rid of co2, and issues with either of these procedures affect your breathing.

Shortness of breath that begins all of a sudden (called severe) has a limited variety of causes, including:

  • Asthma (bronchospasm)
  • Carbon monoxide poisoning
  • Cardiac tamponade (excess fluid around the heart)
  • Hiatal hernia
  • Heart failure
  • Low blood pressure (hypotension)
  • Lung embolism (embolism in an artery in the lung)
  • Pneumothorax (collapsed lung)
  • Pneumonia (pulmonary infection)
  • Abrupt blood loss
  • Upper air passage obstruction (blockage in the breathing passage)

In the case of shortness of breath that has lasted for weeks or longer (called chronic), the condition is most often due to:

  • Asthma
  • COPD (chronic obstructive lung disease)
  • Deconditioning
  • Heart dysfunction
  • Interstitial lung disease
  • Obesity

A variety of other health conditions likewise can make it tough to obtain adequate air. These consist of:

Lung problems

  • Croup (in children)
  • Lung cancer
  • Pleurisy (inflammation of the membrane lining the chest)
  • Pulmonary edema (excess fluid in the lungs)
  • (scarred and harmed lungs)
  • Lung hypertension (hypertension within the lungs’ blood vessels)
  • Sarcoidosis (collections of inflammatory cells in the body)
  • Tuberculosis

Heart problems

  • Cardiomyopathy (problem with the heart muscle)
  • Heart arrhythmias (rhythm issues)
  • Heart failure
  • Pericarditis (swelling of the membrane surrounding the heart)

Other problems

  • Anemia
  • Broken ribs
  • Choking: First help
  • Epiglottitis (swelling of part of the windpipe)
  • Foreign things inhaled: First aid
  • Generalized anxiety disorder
  • Guillain-Barre syndrome
  • Myasthenia gravis (condition triggering muscle weakness)

Causes revealed here are frequently related to this symptom. Work with your doctor or other healthcare specialist for an accurate medical diagnosis.

When to see a doctor

Seek emergency situation treatment

Call 911 or your regional emergency number or have someone drive you to the emergency room if you experience severe shortness of breath that comes on suddenly and impacts your ability to function. Seek emergency situation treatment if your shortness of breath is accompanied by chest pain, fainting or queasiness — as these might be signs of a cardiovascular disease or pulmonary embolism.

Make a doctor’s consultation

Make an appointment with your doctor if your shortness of breath is accompanied by:

  • Swelling in your feet and ankles
  • Trouble breathing when you lie flat
  • High fever, chills and cough
  • Wheezing
  • Worsening of pre-existing shortness of breath


To help keep chronic shortness of breath from worsening:

  • Stop smoking. Once you’re tobacco-free, your risks of heart and lung disease and cancer begin to drop — even if you’ve been smoking for several years.
  • Avoid exposure to pollutants. As much as possible, avoid breathing irritants and ecological toxic substances.
  • Lose weight if you are obese.
  • Take care of yourself. If you have an underlying medical condition, look after it.
  • Have an action strategy. Talk about with your doctor what to do if your symptoms worsen.
  • Keep elevation in mind. Prevent exertion at elevations greater than 5,000 feet (1,524 meters).
  • Regularly check your equipment. If you rely on supplemental oxygen, make sure your supply is sufficient and the devices works appropriately.

Last modified: March 27, 2017


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