Shortness of Breath: Symptoms, Causes, and When to See Your Doctor

Shortness of breath after exerting yourself is normal. Frequent shortness of breath could be a sign of something more serious. Uncovering and treating the underlying cause is the first step to correcting the problem. Read this to learn more.

9 minute read

Last Updated July 8, 2020

Shortness of Breath Causes - Heart Symptoms - 1MD

Feeling short of breath after exercising or exerting yourself is normal and should be temporary. Chronic and frequent shortness of breath could be a sign of something more serious. 

Shortness of breath is the discomfort you feel when you inhale, and it doesn’t feel like a complete breath. It can develop gradually or suddenly and can also be caused by stress and anxiety. 

More intense breathing difficulties, however, require immediate attention, as it could indicate a serious problem.

Shortness of Breath Symptoms

What does shortness of breath feel like? Besides feeling as though you want to take a complete breath, there are additional symptoms that develop as you experience shortness of breath or difficulty breathing. 

The lack of oxygen entering your body can cause the following:

♦ An accelerated breathing rate
♦ Labored breathing
♦ A pale complexion
♦ Excessive sweating
♦ Wheezing
♦ Blue fingernails or lips

Shortness of Breath Causes

Both health and environmental issues can be associated with breathing difficulties and shortness of breath. Common environmental factors include dust and allergens, stress, high altitudes, and stuffy noses or blocked air passages. 

Aside from these common environmental factors, there are also conditions of the lung and the heart that can cause shortness of breath. These conditions require treatment in order to return your breathing patterns to normal. The treatment of shortness of breath will depend on the underlying cause.

Lung Conditions Associated With Shortness of Breath

Emphysema: This is a type of COPD (Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease) that causes poor lung function and is most often caused by smoking. Not smoking or quitting is the best prevention and treatment, but COPD diseases can also be treated with antibiotics, inhaled steroids, and bronchodilators.

Asthma: Asthma is the inflammation of the airways causing them to narrow, which limits breathing and causes tightness in the chest and coughing. The severity of asthma ranges from person to person, and it is a fairly common condition. Asthma is a life-long condition, and it can be treated both short-term with inhalers and long-term with medications such as inhaled corticosteroids.

Pneumonia: Pneumonia is a lung infection that causes inflammation and fluid accumulation. Most types are contagious, and it can be life-threatening if not treated promptly. Pneumonia is treated with medications to alleviate symptoms and antibiotics.

Pulmonary edema: This condition is marked by excess fluid accumulation in the lungs and can be related to heart issues. Shortness of breath is the most common symptom of this condition, and it can be treated with medications and oxygen therapy.

Cold and Flu: Cold and flu viruses impact your airways and lungs and can cause congestion, which interferes with breathing. They can also cause fluid to enter the lungs, which will also cause shortness of breath as a result of inflamed airways. There is no treatment for viruses, so symptoms are treated to keep individuals comfortable. 

Anaphylaxis: This occurs as a result of an allergic reaction that comes on very rapidly. Shortness of breath is the most common symptom and treatment is required immediately to restore breathing. 

Heart Conditions Associated With Shortness of Breath

Heart Attack: The pumping actions of your heart and breathing are closely related during a heart attack. When your heart is not pumping efficiently, you may experience shortness of breath. A heart attack will also cause chest pain and fatigue. Medications such as beta-blockers, antiplatelet drugs, and nitroglycerin are commonly used to treat heart attacks. The shortness of breath will only occur during the heart attack.

Congestive Heart Failure: CHF occurs when your heart muscle becomes weakened and unable to pump blood effectively. As a result, fluid builds up in and around the lungs, causing pressure and shortness of breath. Medications can be used to treat CHF, but preventative care is more effective. Following a heart-healthy diet and getting regular exercise can promote heart health. Without treatment, surgery may be needed. 

Arrhythmia: Irregular heartbeats affect your heart rate causing it to beat too fast or too slow. As the rate of your heart changes, so will your breathing patterns and you will experience shortness of breath. Arrhythmias are treated with medications and devices that help to regulate the heartbeat.

Congestive cardiomyopathy: This is a hereditary or acquired disease of the heart muscle that makes it difficult for your heart to pump. Without treatment, it can lead to heart failure. The obstructed blood flow with this condition can cause shortness of breath, chest pain, and dizziness. Treatment will require medications and possibly surgery.

Coronary Artery Disease: CAD is a disease that causes narrowing of the arteries, which restricts blood flow and causes arteries to become hardened. Your heart receives less blood, which causes damage to the heart muscles, and your risk for heart attack increases. Chest pain and shortness of breath are common symptoms of CAD.

Obesity can also be associated with shortness of breath. The excess weight and fat in the body place pressure on the chest and abdomen making it harder for lung muscles to work.

 

Pulmonary hypertension can result, which contributes to difficulty breathing and shortness of breath. Losing weight and getting regular physical activity can prevent this and promote overall health as well as improve breathing. 

Diagnosis of Shortness of Breath

To treat your shortness of breath, the doctor must determine what is causing it first. You need to let them know how long you have been experiencing the problem, and what makes it worse or better. They need to know if there are any other symptoms and if they are mild or severe. 

Doctors will review your medical history and perform an examination of your heart and lungs. They may also conduct blood tests, CT scans, x-rays, and other diagnostic tests to uncover the underlying cause. 

Natural Treatment for Shortness of Breath

Shortness of breath can be triggered by illness and fatigue, but it can also be a symptom of a serious underlying condition. Serious heart conditions such as heart attack, heart disease, and heart failure can all cause shortness of breath.

Medical treatment will be required for serious conditions, as treatment will prevent serious damage and death. There are also natural treatments you can use to support heart health and reduce risks.

Niacin, or vitamin B3, is proven to support heart health in several ways. This essential vitamin naturally lowers cholesterol and blood pressure, both of which are risk factors for heart attack and heart failure. High cholesterol increases the risk of clogged and damaged arteries, and niacin prevents this. By also lowering blood pressure, niacin protects the heart and blood vessels from stress and damage that can trigger heart failure.

Another beneficial and natural ingredient is red yeast rice. This fermented rice contains compounds that lower cholesterol and work as effectively as the top prescription medications. Red yeast rice also lowers blood pressure and blood glucose levels naturally.

Blood glucose levels are important to heart health, as those with diabetes have a significant risk of heart failure. High blood glucose levels damage heart tissues, and red yeast rice can prevent this by naturally controlling these levels.

Chromium is one final ingredient that can reduce your risk of heart failure or heart disease. Chromium not only lowers blood pressure and blood glucose levels but also increases fat-burning. Obesity increases the risk of heart disease, as excess fat triggers inflammation that damages heart tissue. Chromium, when combined with a balanced diet and exercise, can help you lose the extra pounds that are increasing your risk of heart disease.

When to See Your Doctor

If your shortness of breath is accompanied by fever, chest pain, tightness in the throat, and wheezing, then you could be experiencing angina or a heart attack. These combinations of symptoms require immediate attention.

In general, if you are experiencing shortness of breath for no obvious reason like exercise, or it is on-going and frequent, speak with your doctor right away. Uncovering and treating the underlying cause will be the only way to correct the shortness of breath. 

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