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Shortness of Breath

Medically reviewed by Last updated on Aug 31, 2022.

What is shortness of breath?

Shortness of breath is a feeling that you cannot get enough air when you breathe in. You may have this feeling only during activity, or all the time. Your symptoms can range from mild to severe. Shortness of breath may be a sign of a serious health condition that needs immediate care.

What causes or increases my risk for shortness of breath?

  • A lung condition, such as pneumonia, asthma, or a blood clot in your lung
  • Heart, kidney, or liver disease
  • Lung cancer or lung damage, such as from asbestos
  • Smoking cigarettes
  • Anxiety or a panic attack
  • Physical activity such as running or climbing stairs, especially if you are out of shape
  • Being overweight
  • Travel to high altitude
  • Anemia (low red blood cell count)

How is the cause of shortness of breath diagnosed?

Your healthcare provider will listen to your breathing and check for signs of a serious health condition. Signs include blue lips or fingernails or chest pain that happens with shortness of breath. Tell your provider if shortness of breath keeps you from walking or talking easily. Your provider will also check your memory and alertness. Tell your provider when your shortness of breath started and how severe it is. Describe anything that starts your symptoms, such as physical activity. Also tell your provider anything you do to make breathing easier. You may also need any of the following:

  • Blood tests may be used to check your oxygen level or to find health conditions such as anemia. Anemia is too few red blood cells (RBCs). RBCs carry oxygen throughout your body. Blood tests may also be used to check for signs of infection or organ failure.
  • A pulse oximeter is a device that measures the amount of oxygen in your blood. A cord with a clip or sticky strip is placed on your finger, ear, or toe. The other end of the cord is hooked to a machine.
  • Spirometry is a test to measure how strong your breathing is. You will breathe out as hard as you can into a plastic tube called a spirometer.
  • X-ray pictures may show signs of infection or fluid around your heart or lungs.
  • Exercise tests help your healthcare provider learn if you have symptoms that limit activity. Symptoms include leg pain, fatigue, and weakness. Exercise tests can also show if your symptoms are caused by heart problems.
  • CT scan pictures may show blood clots or an area of disease in your lungs. You may be given contrast liquid to help your lungs show up better in the pictures. Tell the healthcare provider if you have ever had an allergic reaction to contrast liquid.
  • An echocardiogram is a type of ultrasound. Sound waves are used to show the structure and function of your heart.
  • An EKG is a test that measures the electrical activity of your heart.

How is shortness of breath treated?

  • Medicines may be used to treat the cause of your symptoms. You may need medicine to treat a bacterial infection or reduce anxiety. Other medicines may be used to open your airway, reduce swelling, or remove extra fluid. If you have a heart condition, you may need medicine to help your heart beat more strongly or regularly.
  • Oxygen may be given to help you breathe more easily.

What can I do to manage shortness of breath?

  • Create an action plan. You and your healthcare provider can work together to create a plan for how to handle shortness of breath. The plan can include daily activities, treatment changes, and what to do if you have severe breathing problems.
  • Lean forward on your elbows when you sit. This helps your lungs expand and may make it easier to breathe.
  • Use pursed-lip breathing any time you feel short of breath. Breathe in through your nose and then slowly breathe out through your mouth with your lips slightly puckered. It should take you twice as long to breathe out as it did to breathe in.
    Breathe in Breathe out
  • Do not smoke. Nicotine and other chemicals in cigarettes and cigars can cause lung damage and make shortness of breath worse. Ask your healthcare provider for information if you currently smoke and need help to quit. E-cigarettes or smokeless tobacco still contain nicotine. Talk to your healthcare provider before you use these products.
  • Reach or maintain a healthy weight. Your healthcare provider can help you create a safe weight loss plan if you are overweight.
  • Exercise as directed. Exercise can help your lungs work more easily. Exercise can also help you lose weight if needed. Try to get at least 30 minutes of exercise most days of the week.

When should I seek immediate care?

  • Your signs and symptoms are the same or worse within 24 hours of treatment.
  • The skin over your ribs or on your neck sinks in when you breathe.
  • You feel confused or dizzy.

When should I contact my healthcare provider?

  • You have new or worsening symptoms.
  • You have questions or concerns about your condition or care.

Care Agreement

You have the right to help plan your care. Learn about your health condition and how it may be treated. Discuss treatment options with your healthcare providers to decide what care you want to receive. You always have the right to refuse treatment. The above information is an educational aid only. It is not intended as medical advice for individual conditions or treatments. Talk to your doctor, nurse or pharmacist before following any medical regimen to see if it is safe and effective for you.

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