Shortness Of Breath

Shortness Of Breath: Overview

Alternative Names: Dyspnea

Shortness of breath is a frightening feeling of "air hunger" or suffocation brought on by not being able to get enough air.

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A person may experience shortness of breath even though oxygen levels are within a normal range.

Causes and Development

It is natural for a healthy person to become short of breath from strenuous exercise, extreme temperature, or high altitude.  There are also many medical causes of shortness of breath, most of which are related to the heart and lungs which form the cardiopulmonary system.  Causes of acute shortness of breath include:

  • Blockage of the upper airway, for example due to choking or by a tumor
  • Anxiety / Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD)
  • Stress
  • Pneumonia (an infection in the lungs)
  • Bronchospasm (a temporary narrowing of the airways into the lungs)
  • Epiglottitis (swelling of the windpipe)
  • Inflammation of lungs after radiation treatment for cancer
  • Broken ribs
  • Pneumothorax (a collapsed lung)
  • Pleurisy (inflammation of the membrane lining the chest)
  • Pleural effusion (a buildup of fluid in the space between the lungs and the chest wall)
  • Pulmonary edema (excess fluid in the lungs)
  • Pulmonary embolism (a blood clot in the lung)
  • Pericardial effusion (a build up of fluid around the heart)
  • Pericarditis (swelling of the membrane around the heart)
  • Heart attack
  • Low blood pressure
  • Pulmonary hypertension (high blood pressure in the blood vessels of the lungs)
  • Sudden massive blood loss
  • Hypoxemia (an abnormally low concentration of oxygen in the blood)
  • Carbon monoxide (CO) poisoning

Causes of long-term (chronic) shortness of breath include:

Signs and Symptoms

Breathing difficulty can be described as

  • uncomfortable breathing
  • an inability to get enough air
  • a feeling of breathlessness
  • a feeling of smothering, tightness, drowning, or suffocation

Diagnosis and Tests

Diagnosing shortness of breath involves identifying the underlying cause.  Since there are many possible causes, the first step is a review of the patient's medical history, and a physical examination.

Treatment and Prevention

Aside from treating the underlying cause of shortness of breath, relief of symptoms (palliative care) is very important from the patient's point of view.  This includes:

  • Receiving extra oxygen
  • Increasing ventilation, for example by sitting next to a fan
  • Breathing fresh, cool air (lower room temperature, open windows, remove smoke and pet dander from the environment)
  • Keeping the head raised (extra pillows in bed)
  • Meditation and relaxation
  • Increasing the sense of being in an open space (open windows, see a nice view of the outside, be in an empty room)
  • Taking anti-anxiety medication

Prevention includes smoking cessation, pollutant/particulate avoidance, losing weight, treating existing medical conditions, and avoiding exertion at high altitude.

Seek medical attention if...

It is important to tell your doctor right away about sudden, severe or worsening shortness of breath.  In an emergency situation, shortness of breath is often accompanied by chest pain, fainting or nausea.

Signs, symptoms & indicators of Shortness Of Breath:

Symptoms - Respiratory

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Risk factors for Shortness Of Breath:



Organ Health


Symptoms - Muscular

Being very skinny or being underweight

Thin people in general have less difficulty breathing.  If they exercise regularly, they don't breathe hard even during physical activity.  Having less fat inside their bodies allows for free expansion of the rib cage and leaves space for the diaphragm to move downward as it should during breathing.  The lungs are also clear of fat, which allows more efficient exchange of oxygen.  Almost 70% of bodily waste products are removed in the form of carbon dioxide.

Shortness Of Breath suggests the following may be present:


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Health problems rarely occur in isolation or for obvious reasons

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Weak or unproven link: may increase risk of; may suggest
Weak or unproven link:
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Strong or generally accepted link: often increases risk of
Strong or generally accepted link:
often increases risk of
Definite or direct link: is a sign or symptom of; increases risk of
Definite or direct link:
is a sign or symptom of; increases risk of
Weakly counter-indicative: may decrease risk of
Weakly counter-indicative:
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