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Short Of Breath? 11 reasons why this may be cause for concern

Medically reviewed by Carmen Fookes, BPharm. Last updated on July 11, 2022.


Think asthma is a condition only young people suffer from? Think again.

While it is true that most people develop asthma in childhood, asthma symptoms can appear at any age.

Asthma is a chronic condition that affects our airways - these are the breathing tubes that draw air down into our lungs. Symptoms include shortness of breath or a whistling or wheezing sound in your chest when you breathe. In children, a persistent cough may be the only symptom. Symptoms may come and go, and are often triggered by things like exercise, illness, allergens, or stress.


Our blood contains about 20 to 30 trillion red blood cells (RBCs). RBCs contain hemoglobin - an iron-containing protein that enables RBCs to carry oxygen around the body. Anemia can occur if RBCs are destroyed, lost through bleeding, or not replaced quickly enough. Because RBCs carry oxygen, having too few RBCs reduces the delivery of oxygen to your lungs - causing shortness of breath.

Other symptoms of anemia include tiredness, pale skin, a fast or irregular heart beat, and dizziness.

Lung Cancer

Lung cancer kills more people than colon, breast, and prostate cancers combined.

An estimated 236,000 people will be diagnosed with lung cancer in 2022 in the U.S.;two-thirds of those will be over the age of 65.

Although the prognosis for lung cancer is often not good, some people with earlier stage cancers can be cured. Symptoms of lung cancer include shortness of breath, a persistent or worsening cough, weight loss, frequent lung infections, tiredness, and wheezing. Men of African descent, people who smoke, and those who have been exposed to high levels of pollution or radon have a higher risk of developing lung cancer.

Heart Failure

Heart failure is a condition which reflects the weakening of the heart muscles. This makes the heart inefficient at pumping blood and oxygen around the body. As a result, the heart tries to pump harder to compensate. This extra work can damage and enlarge the heart even more.

Early symptoms of congestive heart failure can be subtle, such as foot and ankle swelling, constant tiredness, or poor appetite. Shortness of breath or weight gain indicate a worsening condition, as the body retains fluid, putting further strain on the heart.

Uncontrolled diabetes, alcohol and drug abuse, high blood pressure, and other heart conditions can injure the heart and lead to heart failure. Click here for more information on heart failure.


Pneumonia is a common lung infection that affects millions of people every year in the U.S. It can be caused by a range of different bacteria, viruses, and fungi.

Symptoms of pneumonia include cough, fever, chills, and shortness of breath (sometimes only on exertion). People who smoke, have other types of lung disease including COPD and cystic fibrosis, who have recently had surgery, or with diabetes or other medical conditions that affect the immune system, brain, or heart, are more at risk.

Severe Allergic Reactions and Anaphylaxis

Sudden and severe breathlessness that lasts for more than a few minutes is a medical emergency, especially if it occurs following the ingestion of food, medication, or any type of insect bite or sting. Any other unexpected short-lived episodes of breathlessness should prompt a call to your doctor.

Breathlessness is a common sign of a severe allergic reaction. Anaphylaxis (a-na-fi-lax-is) is the name given to potentially life-threatening allergic reactions that occur within minutes of exposure to an allergen. Other symptoms of anaphylaxis include swelling of the lips, tongue, throat, or face; itching; coughing and wheezing; dizziness or passing out; vomiting and nausea.


Some people who are very obese have difficulty breathing, a condition known as obesity hypoventilation syndrome (OHS).

Experts aren't sure of the exact cause of OHS but suggest it may be due to either excess weight against the chest wall making it harder for the muscles to draw in a deep breath, or a defect in the brain's control over breathing. Other symptoms of OHS include sleep apnea, daytime sleepiness, headaches, depression, and poor sleep quality.

Treatment involves breathing assistance using special machines, oxygen therapy and weight loss.

Tuberculosis and Other Lung Infections

In 2021, a total of 7,860 new cases of Tuberculosis (TB) were reported in the United States, an increase of nearly 10%, compared with the number of cases reported during 2019. Although TB rates have generally been declining since 2010, a relaxing of travel rules and migration associated with the COVID-19 pandemic may explain this increase.

COVID-19 and other infections can also cause breathlessness as a symptom. If diagnostic tests are negative for SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, or other microbes, TB should be considered as a possible diagnosis.

In addition to shortness of breath, symptoms of active TB include a cough of >2 weeks in duration, unintentional weight loss, blood in the sputum, constant tiredness, fever, and night sweats. Some people with TB have no symptoms, and these people are said to have latent TB.

Pulmonary Embolism

An embolus is a blood clot, air bubble, or a collection of other types of cellular material (such as fat cells) that is carried in the blood stream and capable of lodging in a blood vessel causing an embolism (obstruction).

A pulmonary embolism (PE) is a sudden blockage in a blood vessel of the lung that restricts or stops blood flow.

Symptoms can include chest pain, shortness of breath, a fast heart rate, anxiety and a cough, with or without blood-streaked sputum. If not treated promptly, some PEs are fatal.

Inhalation Injuries

Our lungs are very delicate and vulnerable to injury. Children in particular are more likely to breathe in foreign objects, such as beads or small pieces of food. Smoke and carbon monoxide from fires and fumes from toxic substances such as gas, kerosene, or paint thinner can also damage lungs.

Symptoms of an inhalation injury include breathing difficulties, choking, coughing, or a hoarse throat. The skin may appear blue/gray in color and there may be other signs of injury such as singed nasal hairs, facial burns or blisters, or confusion.

Shortness Of Breath After Eating

The two most common conditions associated with shortness of breath after eating are gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease(COPD).

GERD is a digestive disorder that affects the band of tissue (sphincter) that separates our esophagus from our stomach. In people with GERD, stomach acid creeps up the esophagus through the faulty sphincter and towards the airways. This can cause inflammation, narrowing and swelling leading to shortness of breath.

COPD is a progressive lung disease that is more common in people who smoke. The lungs in people with COPD can become hyper-inflated, taking up more room in the chest cavity. Over-filled stomachs can push against the lungs, causing shortness of breath. In addition, the energy required by people with COPD to digest food can also cause significant breathlessness.

COVID-19: Shortness of breath a common symptom

Cases of Covid-19 were first reported in the United States in January, 2020.

The respiratory infection, caused by the SARS-CoV-2 virus, can cause severe illness, such as pneumonia and acute respiratory distress syndrome.

The most common symptoms of Covid-19 include:

  • Cough
  • Fever
  • And shortness of breath.

Other symptoms can include:

  • Chills
  • Gastrointestinal complaints (such as abdominal pain, diarrhea, or nausea)
  • Headache
  • Loss of smell
  • Loss of taste
  • Muscle pain
  • A sore throat.

Symptoms can appear within 5 to 6 days of exposure, although in some instances it may take up to 14 days. two to fourteen days of exposure, although in some people the incubation period is longer. People with mild symptoms who are otherwise healthy should manage their symptoms at home but you should seek immediate medical attention if you have serious symptoms, smoke, or have medical conditions such as cancer, diabetes, heart disease, or lung disease that put you at high risk of severe disease.

Join The Community

Contact your doctor if you experience any mild shortness of breath, or call an ambulance if it is severe.

If you have general questions or comments about conditions that cause you to be short of breath, consider joining the Dyspnea Support Group which allows you to connect with people with similar conditions, ask questions, get answers to your questions, and keep up with the latest news that is related to dyspnea.

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  • American Cancer Society. Lung Cancer (Non-Small Cell).
  • Medline Plus. US National Library of Medicine. Inhalation Injuries.
  • Burn Institute. Safety Tips and Info. Inhalation Injuries.
  • COPD Foundation. COPD Foundation Blog. Short of Breath After Eating.
  • Lung Cancer Statistics. Lungevity. 2022.

Further information

Always consult your healthcare provider to ensure the information displayed on this page applies to your personal circumstances.