Shortness of Breath

Understanding Shortness of Breath

Shortness of breath, also known as dyspnea, is a sensation of breathlessness or difficulty in breathing.

It can vary from mild to severe and may be accompanied by other symptoms like chest pain or wheezing.

Why it Matters

Shortness of breath can be a sign of something serious, so it shouldn’t be ignored. Understanding the underlying mechanisms and triggers is essential for accurate diagnosis and treatment planning. There are two types of dyspnea:

Dyspnea manifests in two forms: acute and chronic. Acute dyspnea develops rapidly, typically within hours to days, while chronic dyspnea persists for more than 4 to 8 weeks.

Common Causes of Shortness of Breath

Shortness of breath can arise from a multitude of underlying factors. Recognising these diverse causes is pivotal in accurately diagnosing and effectively managing this symptom. Below are some common conditions that cause shortness of breath.

Cardiovascular Issues

Shortness of breath may stem from cardiovascular ailments such as

  • Heart failure: Where the heart’s ability to pump blood efficiently is compromised, leading to fluid accumulation in the lungs.

  • Coronary artery disease: Is the narrowing or blocking of arteries that supply the heart muscle.

  • Arrhythmias: Also known as irregular heart rhythms, is a problem with the rate or rhythm of the heartbeat.

Respiratory Conditions

Respiratory disorders cause inflammation and constriction of the airways, these include

  • Asthma: often leads to symptoms such as wheezing, coughing, and chest tightness in addition to dyspnea.

  • Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD): can significantly impede airflow, resulting in breathlessness.


Infections that impact the breathing tubes can cause shortness of breath. These infections can lead to swelling, fluid build-up, and poor lung function, all of which can make it hard to breathe. Some examples are:

  • Croup

  • Bronchitis

  • Pneumonia

  • Influenza (flu)

  • COVID-19

Excess body weight, particularly around the abdomen, can exert pressure on the diaphragm and lungs, restricting their capacity to expand fully during inhalation.

Consequently, individuals suffering from obesity may experience dyspnea even during mild exertion due to reduced pulmonary compliance and diminished respiratory reserve.

Anemia develops when you don’t have enough red blood cells or haemoglobin, which in turn, limits the amount of oxygen getting to your body’s tissues. This can make you feel tired, weak, and short of breath. When your blood can’t carry enough oxygen, your body tries to make up for it by making you breathe faster, leading to shortness of breath.

Feeling short of breath is a common sign of panic attacks and anxiety disorders. An intense sensations of fear or high stress can cause physical reactions, like rapid or deep breathing (also known as hyperventilation) and a tight feeling in the chest. This often can make the feeling of being out of breath even worse. These episodes often happen due to certain triggers or stressful situations.

Diagnostic Tests for Shortness of Breath:

Diagnostic tests play a crucial role in identifying the underlying cause of shortness of breath. These may include:

  • Physical examination: Your cardiologist will assess your medical history and perform a thorough physical examination to evaluate potential causes.

  • Pulmonary function tests: These tests measure lung function and help in diagnosing conditions like asthma or COPD.

  • Imaging tests: X-rays, CT scans, or echocardiograms may be ordered to visualize the heart and lungs and detect abnormalities.

  • Blood tests: Blood tests can provide valuable information about oxygen levels, blood count, and cardiac enzymes, helping to pinpoint potential causes.

Investigations to Determine the Cause of Shortness of Breath:

Further investigations may be necessary to determine the precise cause of shortness of breath. These may involve:

  • Cardiac catheterisation: This procedure helps to evaluate the blood flow in the heart and diagnose coronary artery disease or other cardiac conditions.

  • Bronchoscopy: A bronchoscopy allows direct visualization of the airways and may be used to diagnose respiratory conditions.

  • Stress tests: Stress tests assess how your heart performs under exertion and can help identify cardiac issues that may be causing shortness of breath.

Your Healthcare Provider Will Determine the Most Appropriate Tests for Your Situation:

It’s important to consult with a healthcare provider, who can tailor diagnostic tests based on your specific symptoms, medical history, and risk factors.

By collaborating with your healthcare team, you can receive personalised care and effective management for shortness of breath.

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