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Shortness of Breath

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Shortness of breath is one of scariest conditions as life may be at risk if the condition dramatically worsens. Except for those with asthma who have been managed routinely by inhalers and medications, shortness of breath can be alarming as it is a precursor for not just loss of physical control but a symptom of some other acute illness.


Dyspnea, taken from Latin 'dyspnoea' and Greek 'dyspnoia' indicates shortness of breath. It refers to breathing difficulty or uncomfortable breathing, a feeling of not getting enough air. Dyspnea is of two types, acute dyspnea and chronic dyspnea.


Shortness of breath defies all definition. While some feel absolutely breathless even after mild exercises like climbing stairs, there are others who would never feel any shortness of breath even after an advanced lung disease.



Causes of shortness of breath

  • A block in the passage of air in the nose, mouth or throat

  • Emotional distress such as anxiety

  • Problems with lungs such as pneumonia, bronchiolitis, obstructive pulmonary disease, asthma, pulmonary hypertension, epiglottitis, croup, or choking in the airways and wheezing

  • Major heart problems such as heart attack or angina, heart failure, arrhythmias, congenital heart disease, and any heart ailment especially if the heart is unable to pump enough blood to enable supply oxygen to the various parts of the body including brain

  • Blood and blood vessel problems such as anemia or pulmonary embolus

  • Allergies

  • Serious blood infections such as septicemia, salt imbalances, severe dehydration and diabetes

  • Lack of exercise or other activity and poor physical shape

  • Obesity

  • Compression of the chest wall

  • Panic attacks and anxiety

  • Hiatial hernia

  • Huge amount of dust in the environ

  • Rapid ascent to higher altitudes with less oxygen in air without allowing body time to adjust.

  • Cigarette smoking

Symptoms of shortness of breath

Some opine that the best way to assess shortness of breath is by asking the victim to speak. As she/he will be unable to answer a question due to shortness of breath, it is a strong sign of troubled breathing. The victim will also be too weak to hold his or her head upright due to insufficient oxygen affecting muscle strength. They would lose the ability to concentrate as the brain may be affected by lack of oxygen and this is a dangerous condition that warrants emergency responders to breathe for them.


Watching the person breathe is another good assessment tool. Victims of shortness of breath would look like they have just finished running uphill. They would probably purse their lips while exhaling, use chest and neck muscles to take deep breaths, rest hands on their knees to expand their chest and since they are 'winded' they would be unable to speak long sentences.


If any of the following signs and symptoms of breathing difficulty occurs, it is advised to immediately consult a health care provider.


  • Discomfort in chest, pain or pressure

  • Shortness of breath even while at rest

  • Inability to sleep normally and requirement to sleep propped up to aid breathing

  • Wheezing

  • Aspiration or ingestion of a foreign object

  • Barking croupy cough / significant cough

  • Tightness in throat

  • Development of fever

Shortness of breath allergies


The National Institutes of Health in the US considers allergic reactions a vital reason for shortness of breath. These reactions include dust, dander, mold, pollen and foods such as peanuts, chicken, eggs, milk and wheat, insect bites or stings and certain medications. There could be the case of a person stung by a bee and experiencing shortness of breath and this is highly critical and needs emergency attention.


Sometimes allergic reactions can cause shortness of breath even when talking. The bronchial tubes narrow and the person is unable to get sufficient air into the lungs for normal breathing. Those with family history of allergies and asthma should get checked regularly. One of the best warning signs would be sounding out of breath when talking over the telephone.


Shortness of breath pregnancy

During pregnancy, the baby places increasing demands on the circulatory and respiratory systems. Hormone levels tend to rise and this stimulates respiratory responses in the brain which in turn contributes to shortness of breath. While during pregnancy the uterus expands to occupy lot of space in the belly and diaphragm and women who carry high or carry multiples experience shortness of breath. Some pregnant women experience shortness of breath while exercising or attempting to climb the stairs. This is normal situation during pregnancy.


However, in exceptional cases, shortness of breath during pregnancy may suggest an underlying problem. If the shortness of breath occurs suddenly without any provocation, it is better to consult the doctor.


Tips to improve shortness of breath during pregnancy

Simple strategies may be adopted to resolve the problem of shortness of breath during pregnancy.


  • Expand the chest and breathe slowly, from the stomach. Raising the arms above the head to open the rib cage is one way to enhance breathing.

  • Inhale slowly by counting to three and then exhale to the count of five to ten. This way you become more conscious of your breathing patterns and more fulfilling breathing can be developed. This simple awareness of breathing patterns can help alleviate shortness of breath during pregnancy.

  • Yoga could help focus on breathing techniques. Consider attending yoga classes.

  • Taking things too hard can result in faintness and dizziness. Therefore it is essential to take time for instance, before climbing stairs or exercising.

Shortness of breath exertion

Exertion can result if the body undergoes acute stress doing laborious work for several hours without adequate sleep. Over exertion can be both physical and mental. While professionals face work tension, students suffer performance related tension which can cause mental exertion. Shortness of breath and over exertion are directly proportional to each other - more the exertion more intense the breathing problem. However, it should not be ruled out that some feel winded even after minimal amount of physical exertion.


Those who exert for long periods of time while teaching, or reading aloud, working on the telephone, lecturing or even addressing a gathering can sometimes find themselves short of breath. There are others who experience shortness of breath even when they sing. Anxiety is another contributory factor, accompanied by nervousness which makes people talk faster resulting in shortness of breath. A conscious effort to breathe slowly and exhale fully should help overcome such situations.


Shortness of breath dizziness

Shortness of breath can be accompanied by other symptoms such as dizziness or lightheadedness especially while talking. Shortness of breath can be mild, moderate or severe. In certain cases, a feeling of complete blackout may be experienced. Breathing can either be slow, rapid or tight as shortness of breath can occur suddenly or quite gradually.


Vomiting and lack of flexible bodily movements accompany dizziness and nausea due to shortness of breath by over exertion. The resultant condition is fatigue, a state of extreme tiredness.


Shortness of breath exercises

While some may experience shortness of breath during exercise, most feel normal due to their physical activity. Shortness of breath during a regular physical activity is not necessary normal. It is advised to consult a physician as this could be a sign of a more serious physical ailment.


Shortness of exercise may occur during exercising due to several reasons. First and foremost being poor physical condition. The body is unable to adjust a new exercise program and shortness of breath occurs due to the physical strain caused. It may diminish over a period of time.


Shortness of breath is prominent in exercise induced asthma and exercise induced shortness of breath is most common in children and adolescents. The severity of asthma is bound to increase in those who are obese and in poor physical shape. Whereas asthma responds well to treatment and many with asthma who are well treated can have normal exercise tolerance.


Angina can become a serious cause for short of breath while exercising. Angina indicates coronary artery disease and pain in the chest area is exhibited. Whereas there are many who experience shortness of breath and pain in the chest simultaneously and this warrants visiting the doctor immediately.


Shortness of breath chest pain

Shortness of breath and chest pain can be indicative of heart disorder. Ischemia results in reduced blood/oxygen flow to the heart cells and this can cause angina. The heart becomes unable to respond to properly. While heaviness in the chest and chest pain can be do to various reasons, cardiac reasons can be life threatening. Having a panic attack may also induce chest pain and this can trigger grave fear and anxiety causing rapid breathing and excessive sweating and short of breath.


Other prominent pulmonary and cardiovascular disorders like pneumonia, chest infections, lung hemorrhages, and intense bronchospasms can lead to shortness of breath. Chronic dyspnea is due to insufficient supply of blood to the muscles of the heart. Presence of tumors in the heart and damage caused to the pericardial membrane can also contribute to dyspnea. Serious chest wounds can cause lung problems and the ribs of the heart to fracture. It is essential to report such occurrences to the physician immediately before the condition becomes critical.


Treating for shortness of breath

Treating for shortness of breath absolutely depends on the cause and severity of the illness. If the victim is suffering from any of the following signs then it is imperative to rush to the physician immediately:


  • Blue in the face, chest and hands
  • Inability to speak more than two words between breaths
  • Dizziness
  • Confusion
  • Weakness
  • Wheezing

Much of the preventive measures for shortness of breath depend on what is causing it. While avoiding strenuous activity can help prevent shortness of breath to some extent, regular exercise can get you in shape and make you less likely to suffer shortness of breath with normal activity. Whereas cases of shortness of breath due to asthma, congestive heart failure and other panic disorders can be prevented by taking appropriate medications regularly, it must be understood that as such in many cases, it cannot be absolutely prevented.


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