Shortness of breath

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Definition

Few sensations are as frightening as not being able to get enough air. Shortness of breath known medically as dyspnea is often described as an intense tightening in the chest, air hunger or a feeling of suffocation.

Very strenuous exercise, extreme temperatures, massive obesity and high altitude all can cause shortness of breath in a healthy person. Outside of these examples, shortness of breath is likely a sign of a medical problem.

If you have unexplained shortness of breath, especially if it comes on suddenly and is severe, see your doctor as soon as possible.

Causes

Most cases of shortness of breath are due to heart or lung conditions. Your heart and lungs are involved in transporting oxygen to your tissues and removing carbon dioxide, and problems with either of these processes affect your breathing.

Shortness of breath that comes on suddenly (called acute) has a limited number of causes, including:

  • Asthma (bronchospasm)
  • Carbon monoxide poisoning
  • Cardiac tamponade (excess fluid around the heart)
  • Heart attack
  • Heart failure
  • Low blood pressure (hypotension)
  • Pulmonary embolism (blood clot in an artery in the lung)
  • Pneumothorax (collapsed lung)
  • Pneumonia (pulmonary infection)
  • Sudden blood loss
  • Upper airway 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 pulmonary disease)
  • Deconditioning
  • Heart dysfunction
  • Interstitial lung disease
  • Obesity

A number of other health conditions also can make it hard to get enough air. These include:

Lung problems

  • Croup (in young children)
  • Lung cancer
  • Pleurisy (inflammation of the membrane lining the chest)
  • Pulmonary edema (excess fluid in the lungs)
  • Pulmonary fibrosis (scarred and damaged lungs)
  • Pulmonary hypertension (high blood pressure 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 problems)
  • Heart failure
  • Pericarditis (swelling of the membrane surrounding the heart)

Other problems

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

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