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As pregnancy progresses, a person may have difficulty catching their breath after carrying out routine tasks such as climbing the stairs.

According to a 2015 study, an estimated 60–70% of women experience shortness of breath during pregnancy. Another name for the condition is dyspnea.

  • Causes include the growing uterus pushing upward on the lungs, and hormonal increases.
  • Pregnancy dyspnea is usually harmless. However, in some cases, more serious pregnancy complications can lead to difficulty breathing.
  • Treatment usually involves home remedies unless there is an underlying cause that requires medical intervention.

This article will explore the causes of shortness of breath during pregnancy and how it develops. It also covers coping strategies and when a person should contact a doctor.

A note about sex and gender

Sex and gender exist on spectrums. This article will use the terms, “male,” “female,” or both to refer to sex assigned at birth. Click here to learn more.

It is very common to experience shortness of breath during pregnancy. It is not always possible for a doctor to pinpoint one single cause, and doctors often consider this a symptom of the pregnancy itself.

Since shortness of breath can often begin in the first trimester, biological and mechanical changes relating to pregnancy are likely factors. These factors can range from the growing uterus to changes in the demands on the heart.

Some pregnant people may notice changes in their breathing almost immediately, while others see differences during the second and third trimesters.

First trimester

A fetus does not have to be very large to cause breathing changes in a pregnant person. From the first trimester, which lasts approximately through week 14, a person’s consumption of oxygen begins to increase.

The diaphragm, a muscular band of tissue that separates the heart and lungs from the belly, rises by as much as 4 centimeters during the first trimester of pregnancy.

The diaphragm’s movement helps the lungs fill up with air. While some people may not be aware of changes in how deeply they can breathe in, others may notice they cannot take full, deep breaths.

As well as changes in the diaphragm, pregnant people often breathe faster due to increases in the hormones progesterone and estrogen, both of which play an essential role in the fetus’s development. Progesterone is also a respiratory stimulant, meaning it causes a person’s breathing to quicken.

The amount of progesterone in a person’s body will increase throughout pregnancy. While breathing faster does not necessarily cause shortness of breath, some people may notice changes in breathing patterns.

Second trimester

Many pregnant people may experience more noticeable shortness of breath in the second trimester, which lasts until about week 28. In a study from the 1970s, 31% of the 62 otherwise well pregnant participants developed shortness of breath by week 19.

The growing uterus commonly contributes to shortness of breath in the second trimester. However, some changes in the way the heart functions can also cause breathlessness.

The amount of blood in a person’s body increases significantly during pregnancy. The heart has to pump harder to move this blood through the body and to the placenta.

The increased workload on the heart can make a pregnant person feel short of breath.

Third trimester

During the third trimester, which begins around week 29, breathing may get easier or more difficult, depending largely on the position of the developing baby’s head.

Before the baby starts to turn and drop farther into the pelvis, the baby’s head may feel as if it is under a rib and pressing on the diaphragm, which can make it even harder to breathe.

According to the National Women’s Health Resource Center, this type of shortness of breath usually occurs between weeks 31–34. This shortness of breath may also be accompanied by a persistent, dry cough.

Additional causes

If a pregnant person is experiencing severe shortness of breath, it is essential for them to speak with a doctor.

While pregnancy changes can cause some breathlessness, other medical conditions can also contribute to the problem. These include:

  • Asthma: Pregnancy may make existing asthma symptoms worse. People with asthma should speak with a doctor about safe treatments during pregnancy, such as inhalers or medications.
  • Peripartum cardiomyopathy: This is a type of heart failure that can occur during pregnancy or immediately after giving birth. Symptoms include ankle swelling, low blood pressure, fatigue, and heart palpitations. Many people may initially attribute their symptoms to pregnancy, but the condition can seriously affect a person’s health and often requires treatment.
  • Pulmonary embolism: A pulmonary embolism occurs when a blood clot gets stuck in an artery in the lungs. An embolism can dramatically affect breathing and cause coughing, chest pain, and shortness of breath.

Feeling short of breath can be uncomfortable and limit a person’s physical activity. There is not enough research to support specific treatments for dyspnea during pregnancy. However, there are several general steps pregnant people can take to make breathing more comfortable, including:

  • Practicing good posture will allow the uterus to move away from the diaphragm as much as possible. Pregnancy support belts can make practicing good posture easier. These belts are available in specialty stores and online.
  • Sleeping with pillows supporting the upper back, which can allow gravity to pull the uterus down and give the lungs more space. Tilting slightly to the left in this position can also help keep the uterus off the aorta, the major artery that moves oxygenated blood through the body.
  • Practicing breathing techniques commonly used in labor, such as Lamaze breathing. Practicing these techniques during pregnancy may help a person use them during labor as well.
  • Listening to the body and slowing down when needed. It is crucial to take breaks and rest if breathing becomes too difficult. In the later stages of pregnancy, a person may not be able to do the same level of physical activity as before.

If a person has another underlying medical condition causing shortness of breath, it is essential to follow their doctor’s recommendations about treatment.

Medical treatments can include getting supplemental oxygen in severe cases. It will also depend on whether the shortness of breath is a result of the pregnancy’s impact on a person’s body or if there is another underlying cause.

For example, pregnant people with allergies or asthma that is exacerbating shortness of breath may need to use nasal saline sprays or prescription nasal steroids to reduce congestion.

While many people experience some shortness of breath during pregnancy, some symptoms require treatment.

Pregnant people should seek immediate medical treatment for the following symptoms:

  • blue lips, fingers, or toes
  • heart palpitations or extremely high heart rate
  • pain when breathing
  • severe shortness of breath that seems to be getting worse
  • wheezing

If shortness of breath is especially bothersome or if someone experiences it for the first time, they should speak with a doctor. The doctor may want to perform imaging tests, such as ultrasounds on the legs, to rule out a blood clot as a potential cause.

Shortness of breath after delivery

Shortness of breath will usually resolve on its own after delivery.

If it does not, or if a person experiences shortness of breath after giving birth that they did not experience during the pregnancy, this may be a sign of a postpartum complication such as a problem with the person’s heart.

A person should seek medical attention as soon as possible.

Shortness of breath is a common symptom affecting people during pregnancy. It can begin in the first trimester and may get worse over time due to increased pressure from the fetus on the diaphragm and hormonal changes.

Shortness of breath in pregnancy is usually harmless. A person can usually treat it with some home remedies, and it should go away on its own after delivery.

In some cases, shortness of breath during pregnancy can have other underlying causes and may be more severe. Contacting a doctor can help a person determine whether they need medical treatment.