Shortness of Breath: Causes, Medical Evaluation & Treatment

It is quite frightening at times, when one faces difficulty breathing. Shortness of breath occurs when there is shortage of oxygen that reaches the lungs. Breathing involves inhalation and exhalation of air. When air cannot reach the lungs, it leads to a medical disorder called dyspnea, that we know in simple terms as shortness of breath.

Overview of shortness of breath

Shortness of breath, also called as dyspnea can occur due to a number of illnesses. This condition can occur during any time of the day or night. It is quite common when one carries out strenuous activity or exerts oneself. The severity of the condition can be mild to severe, depending on the type of condition one suffers from.

Shortness of breath can occur when the levels of carbon dioxide increase in the blood. At times it can occur due to the presence of other conditions like pneumonia, asthma, heart problems, lung disorders, cancer, etc. If one suffers from chronic shortness of breath, they should consult a doctor immediately.

Types of Shortness of Breath

Shortness of breath can be

Acute or

Chronic condition.

Acute dyspnea, occurs suddenly due to pulmonary problems or chest trauma. It can also be due to cardiovascular conditions such as congestive heart failure, myocardial infraction as well as coronary heart disease. In some cases, collapsed lungs, fractured ribs or blunt chest trauma can lead to shortness of breath. People suffering from emotion distress like anxiety or panic attacks show acute dyspnea.

In case of chronic dyspnea, it occurs as a long term problem. It is not a condition in itself, but occurs as a symptom of an underlying disease. These diseases include neuromuscular disorders, heart problems, thyroid disorders, etc. Asthma, bronchitis, vocal cord diseases are some conditions that cause chronic shortness of breath. People with anemia often suffer from shortness of breath, as they do not have adequate RBCs to carry enough oxygen to lungs. Other conditions include muscular dystrophy, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, and other similar muscle disorders can reduce the capacity of the lungs to process oxygen. Obesity too can leave a person short of air.

Symptoms of Shortness of Breath

Shortness of breath feels like one does not have enough air around them to breath. One is gasping for air and may feel as if an external force is compressing their chest.

Other symptoms along with shortness of breath include:

  • Rapid breathing
  • Nasal congestion
  • Arrhythmia
  • Sweating
  • Cough
  • Heart palpitations
  • Pain in the jaw or neck
  • Wheezing

Medical Evaluation for Shortness of Breath

Shortness of breath cannot be evaluated in any specific way. It can be diagnosed only after one is medically assessed. The doctor may check the patient’s heart, lung and overall health to conclude the cause leading to shortness of breath.

Some tests include:

What Causes Shortness of Breath?

There are different mechanisms that can lead to shortness of breath. These mechanisms along with an underlying condition can lead to dyspnea. The body mechanisms that can lead to shortness of breath include:

  • Loss of ability to expand of the lungs
  • Increase in requirement of air by the body
  • Decrease in the supply of air to the lungs
  • Increase in carbon dioxide levels in the blood
  • Problems with oxygen transportation to the lungs

Conditions that amplify the above problems leading to shortness of breath include the following:

Respiratory problems like:

  • Asthma
  • Bronchitis
  • Pneumonia
  • Pulmonary edema
  • Multiple sclerosis
  • Pulmonary embolism
  • Tuberculosis
  • Sarcoderma
  • COPD

Heart Conditions such as:

  • Pericarditis
  • Congestive heart failure
  • Atrial fibrillation
  • Supraventricular tachycardia
  • Heart failure

Other conditions such as:

Treatment for Shortness of Breath

Treatment for breathlessness include treating the underlying condition that causes it. In some cases, decongestants help opening the airways and treating shortness of breath. In some cases, one may need cardiovascular drugs that help in treating the heart problems that causes breathlessness. Iron supplements are advised to those who are anemic. Some are advised, anti-anxiety drugs, bronchodilators, oxygen, etc. to overcome shortness of breath.


Shortness of breath is not a  life threatening condition. It is manageable with medications and palliative care. Timely diagnosis of the underlying condition will help one reduce the symptoms and severity of the condition.

If one has trouble breathing, they should seek medical help. Shortness of breath can be an indicator of a serious condition that requires medical treatment.