If you experience the feeling that you cannot get enough air into the lungs, it is called dyspnea or shortness of breath. In such cases, you may work harder to get enough air. Usually, the common condition that causes dyspnea are heart and lung diseases.

What is Dyspnea?

In other words, when you cannot get enough air experience chest tightness, and work harder to breathe is called shortness of breath or dyspnea (the term used by physicians). In most cases, shortness of breath is a symptom of heart or lung disease. However, it also may be a symptom of asthma, allergies, anxiety, and other health problems. The breathless sensation may also give you high-intensity exercises and a cold.

However, a person may experience different types of dyspnea. For example paroxysmal nocturnal dyspnea (PND) or sighing dyspnea. PND is one dyspnea type in which you cannot breathe for the first 2-3 hours after you fall asleep. After taking deep breaths a person sighs a lot trying to lessen dyspnea feeling is called sighing dyspnea.

There is no difference between shortness of breath and dyspnea. Both words mean the same but dyspnea is the medical term used to explain that someone cannot get enough air into the lungs.

Acute and Chronic Dyspnea

Chronic and acute dyspnea are different based on the cause, duration, and how fast they start.

Acute Dyspnea

This dyspnea type usually begins fast and does not last for a longer time (from hours to a few days). The primary causes of acute dyspnea are allergies, anxiety, exercise, and certain health conditions (such as the common cold and flu). However, more serious diseases can also provoke acute dyspnea including myocardial infarction, anaphylaxis (sudden airway narrowing), blood clots (pulmonary embolism), and others.

Chronic Dyspnea

In such cases, an individual may experience shortness of breath for a longer time (a few weeks or longer) and chronic dyspnea may continue to come back. Usually, the cause of chronic dyspnea is more serious health conditions (for example asthma, heart failure, and COPD). The muscles tend to get more oxygen and if you are not exercising enough, you may also notice breathlessness.

Who is at Higher Risk of Developing Dyspnea?

Shortness of breath is a common symptom of different conditions and health problems. However, some people may be at higher risk of developing dyspnea. Examples include:

  • Anxiety
  • Anemia (low red blood cell count)
  • Lung or heart problems
  • History of smoking
  • Respiratory infection
  • Higher weight people
  • Obesity


Check below the main symptoms that mean you have shortness of breath:

  • You are working hard to breathe
  • Chest tightness
  • Tachypnea (rapid breathing)
  • Palpitations (fast heart rate)
  • Wheezing or stridor (noisy breathing)
  • Difficulty taking a deep breath

If you experience any of the previous symptoms, immediately talk with your healthcare professional.


There are different causes of shortness of breath such as exercise, health conditions, and others. In most cases, dyspnea is diagnosed due to heart or lung conditions.

However, the lungs and heart work together to bring oxygen to all body tissues and organs. They also help to remove carbon dioxide from the body and if something does not work properly, body tissues and organs will get less oxygen. As a result, it may lead to an increased level of carbon dioxide in the blood. In such cases, you may experience difficulty breathing. A good workout or being at high altitudes makes the body need more oxygen.

When the brain gets the signal that the lungs are not working correctly, you may feel chest tightness. Thus, you should work hard to breathe and get enough oxygen. The main causes include lung irritation, restriction of the way your lungs move when breathing, and blocked or narrow airways.

Additionally, different health conditions can provoke dyspnea. For example:

Lung Diseases

  • Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)
  • Asthma
  • Allergies
  • Pneumonia
  • Respiratory conditions (including bronchitis, COVID-19, flu, and other infections)
  • Inflammation or fluid around the lungs
  • Scarring or fluid inside the lungs
  • Lung cancer
  • Pleural mesothelioma
  • Pulmonary hypertension (high blood pressure in the lungs)
  • Tuberculosis
  • Sarcoidosis
  • Pneumothorax or atelectasis (partial or totally collapsed lung)
  • Choking
  • Pulmonary embolism (caused by blood clots)

Heart Diseases

  • Arrhythmia (irregular heart rhythm)
  • Cardiomyopathy (diseases that negatively affect heart muscle)
  • Heart failure
  • Anemia
  • Inflammation around the heart (including myocarditis, pericarditis, endocarditis, and others)

Other Diseases

  • Mental disorders (such as anxiety)
  • Injuries such as a broken rib can also cause breathing problems
  • Extreme temperatures
  • Obesity
  • Lack of physical exercise
  • Sleep apnea is a condition that can provoke paroxysmal nocturnal dyspnea
  • Using medicines such as statins and beta-blockers


Commonly, to diagnose this condition, physicians will perform a physical examination, listen to your lungs (using a stethoscope), and measure your blood pressure. In case it is still not clear whether you have dyspnea or not, healthcare professionals may order you to do some tests. For example:

  • Chest X-ray, CT scans, or other imaging tests – These tests are done to check inside the chest for lung problems.
  • Lung function tests – Doctors verify during these tests how well you are breathing.
  • Cardiopulmonary exercise testing – This test helps to determine the amount of oxygen you breathe in and carbon dioxide you breathe out.
  • Blood tests – Physicians usually order you to do a blood test to check for anemia and other conditions that cause dyspnea.

Several treatment options are available to treat shortness of breath. Check below some treatment options:

  • Exercise – Regular exercise helps to strengthen the lung and heart muscles. Therefore, they do not have to work as hard.
  • Relaxation techniques – Physicians also will recommend some relaxation techniques and breathing exercises. These techniques are very effective in the treatment of dyspnea, breathing diseases, and anxiety.
  • Medicines – Doctors usually prescribe bronchodilators for shortness of breath, asthma, and COPD. These medications help to relax the airways. Physicians may also prescribe pain relievers because they can also help improve breathing.
  • Oxygen therapy – These therapies involve a mask or a tube in your nose. It is used when oxygen levels in the blood are very low.

Frequently Asked Questions

Can shortness of breath be prevented?

Check below some tips that may help to prevent or avoid dyspnea:

  • Do not inhale chemicals that can irritate the lungs (including paint fumes, car exhaust, and others)
  • Manage underlying health conditions
  • Quit smoking
  • Maintain a healthy weight
  • Practice relaxation techniques and breathing exercises
  • It is not recommended to have activities when it is very hot or very cold.

Is dyspnea a curable health condition?

Dyspnea can be cured if the underlying condition can. Otherwise, shortness of breath can return occasionally. Discuss with your healthcare provider for more details.

Is dyspnea life-threatening?

In most cases, shortness of breath is not dangerous but in some cases, dyspnea can be a symptom of a life-threatening disease. It is recommended to go to the nearest emergency room in the following cases. Examples include:

  • Breathlessness after rest
  • Blue skin, lips, or nails (cyanosis)
  • Chest pain
  • Irregular heartbeat (palpitations)
  • High fever
  • Swollen ankles or feet
  • Severe breathlessness
  • Sudden breathing problems

Ask your healthcare professional in case you have any other questions.

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