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Other Names:
Shortness of Breath, Breathlessness, Difficulty Breathing, Dyspnea
Breathing Difficulty

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Definition

Breathing difficulty or shortness of breath involves a sensation of discomfort during breathing or a feeling of not getting enough air.

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Causes

  • Obstruction of the Air Passages (of the nose, mouth or throat):
    • Inhalation of a foreign object
    • Dust-laden environment
    • Allergies such as to mold, dander, or pollen which may cause swelling of the mucous membrane of the air passages resulting in their blockage.
    • Common cold
    • Chronic Sinusitis
    • Epiglottitis
  • Heart Disease:
    • Coronary artery disease
    • Heart attack (myocardial infarction)
    • Congestive heart failure (CHF)
    • Heart arrhythmias
    • Mitral valve regurgitation
    • Cor Pulmonale (Cardiac Asthma)
    • Mitral valve stenosis
    • Mitral valve prolapse
    • Cardiac Temponade
  • Lung Disease:
    • Asthma
    • Emphysema
    • Interstitial lung disease
    • Pneumonia
    • Pneumothorax (collapsed lung)
    • Pulmonary hypertension
    • Pulmonary Embolism
    • Croup (whooping cough)
  • Emotional Distress
    • Anxiety
    • Panic Attacks
    • Post Traumatic Anxiety Disorder
    • Phobias
  • Other
    • Rapid ascent to high altitudes, with less oxygen in the air
    • Lack of exercise
    • Obesity
    • Cigarette smoking
    • Compression of the chest wall
    • Direct trauma to the neck or chest
    • Limited expansion of the chest wall as might occur in ankylosing spondylitis, scoliosis
    • Anaphylaxis e.g. bee sting, andioedema, penicillin allergy
    • Muscular dystrophy

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Implications

Prolonged episodes of breatlessnes can be life threatening and should be taken very seriously. Any episode of stopped breathing (apnea), even a temporary one, in which a person turns blue (cyanosis), has a seizure, becomes limp, or remains drowsy or unconscious, requires immediate medical attention. Difficulty breathing or breathlessness is a feeling that may vary from person to person. For some a sense of breathlessness may occur with only mild exercise in the absence of any cardiac or lung disorder. Others may have advanced lung disease but may never feel a sensation of breathlessness. A small degree of breathing difficulty may be normal, for example, in case of severe nasal congestion or doing strenuous exercise, especially when a person does not exercise regularly. Wheezing is one form of breathing difficulty and is a characteristic symptom of asthma.

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What You Can Do

  • Breathing difficulty of any duration should be considered a serious problem. Thorough evaluation should be done by a physician as the cause of this problem may be easily corrected without any serious complications.

  • Follow the treatment prescribed by your physician to treat the underlying cause.

  • Call 911 if breathlessness comes on suddenly or if it seriously interferes with normal breathing or if there is sudden cessation of breathing (apnea).

  • Consult your physician immediately if any of the following accompany breathing difficulties:
    • There is shortness of breath without any apparent reason.
    • There is chest discomfort, sharp or dull aching pain.
    • There is shortness of breath on slight exertion or while at rest.
    • Your sleep is disturbed at night night due to breathlessness or you have to sleep propped up on several pillows to avoid breathlessness.
    • There is wheezing which may be an indication of asthma or early emphysema.
    • There is tightness in the throat or a barking, croupy cough.
    • There is fever or cough.

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Breathing Difficulty