People may experience shortness of breath while walking as a result of obesity, poor physical conditioning, and asthma. Less commonly, it can also indicate more serious underlying conditions, such as heart or respiratory problems.

In this article, we will discuss what shortness of breath is, its causes, how to manage it, and when to seek help.

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Shortness of breath, or dyspnea, is a sensation of uncomfortable breathing. It can feel different from person to person, and vary in intensity. People may feel out of breath or as if breathing takes more effort than usual.

Dyspnea can be acute or chronic. Acute dyspnea lasts from a few hours to a few days, whereas chronic dyspnea lasts for more than 4–8 weeks.

Physical activity, such as walking, may trigger or worsen shortness of breath for some people.

Shortness of breath is different from finding it difficult to breathe. People who are struggling to breathe should call 911 or their local emergency department for immediate medical help.

Asthma is a common condition that varies in severity. For some people, it causes mild, occasional symptoms that only occur in response to certain triggers. In other cases, exercise is a trigger, which may mean people experience symptoms while walking.

Symptoms of asthma include:

People with asthma often also have hay fever or eczema.

Not all asthma requires medical treatment. Some people may be able to manage their symptoms by avoiding things that trigger their symptoms, such as tobacco, dust mites, animals, or pollen. If a person has obesity and asthma, reaching a moderate weight may reduce symptoms.

If a person needs medical treatment, a doctor will often prescribe bronchodilators or anti-inflammatory medication.

Obesity is a condition where people carry excess weight or body fat that may have an impact on their health. People who have obesity have a higher risk of other conditions, such as diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and high blood pressure.

People with obesity may also have:

People who have obesity should work with their doctor or dietitian to follow a healthful, balanced diet. Sometimes, it may help to address any underlying mental health conditions with a therapist.

Some people with obesity may take weight loss medications or undergo surgery, such as a sleeve gastrectomy.

Shortness of breath is common in people with coronary artery disease (CAD) — a condition where plaque builds up inside the arteries that supply blood to the heart, restricting blood flow and oxygen. People may also experience chest pain or discomfort.

When people with CAD are physically active, the lungs work harder to get more oxygen into the body, causing shortness of breath.

People may not realise they have CAD until they experience a heart attack.

Treatment for CAD includes:

Heart arrhythmia is a condition where a person’s heart has an irregular rhythm. Some people with heart arrhythmia do not experience any symptoms, while others do.

Symptoms of heart arrhythmia include:

Treatment for heart arrhythmia depends on the type of arrhythmia a person has. Doctors may prescribe medication to stop, prevent, or control arrhythmia.

In some cases, people may need a pacemaker or an implantable cardioverter-defibrillator, which monitors heart rhythms and helps the heart beat at a normal rate.

Other people may need cardioversion, which involves using an electrical current to restore the heart into natural rhythm. Another possible procedure is a catheter ablation, which destroys any tissue that is diseased and causes arrhythmia.

Pneumonia is an infection of the lungs. The infection can occur as a result of bacteria, viruses, or fungi. Symptoms of pneumonia include:

  • rapid breathing
  • rapid heart rate
  • fever with or without chills
  • shallow breathing or shortness of breath
  • crackles in the lung

People can treat mild pneumonia at home. Doctors may prescribe antibiotics, antiviral drugs, or antifungal medication. People can also buy over-the-counter medicines to treat any fever or muscle pain.

Some people may need hospital treatment. A hospital can provide antibiotics and fluids through an intravenous line and provide oxygen therapy to increase the amount of oxygen in the blood.

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is a common condition where people find it progressively harder to breathe.

The most common cause of COPD is long-term exposure to cigarette smoke. However, exposure to other types of air pollutants can also cause it.

Symptoms of COPD include:

  • wheezing
  • barrel chest
  • shortness of breath
  • respiratory distress
  • muscle weakening

Doctors can treat mild cases of COPD with bronchodilators, corticosteroids, and antibiotics. People with severe COPD and people who require hospitalization may need oxygen and bronchodilator therapy.

Some people with COPD may need surgery, such as a bullectomy, or a lung transplant.

Pulmonary embolism is a condition that occurs when there is disruption in blood flow in the pulmonary artery. The most common symptoms of pulmonary embolism include:

There are many different causes of and risk factors for a pulmonary embolism. It can be more likely in people who take particular types of birth control or during pregnancy, for example.

If a person thinks they have pulmonary embolism, they should seek medical attention as soon as possible. Most people with pulmonary embolism can take anticoagulant medication, which should allow them to make a full recovery.

Interstitial lung disease (ILD) is a term that refers to a group of lung disorders with similar causes. This condition may occur due to long-term exposure to environmental factors, such as toxic gases.

ILD may also be the result of autoimmune conditions, certain medications, and other diseases, such as pneumonia.

Symptoms of ILD include:

  • gradual onset of shortness of breath
  • cough
  • chest pain

People can try to manage their symptoms by avoiding known triggers, such as cigarette smoke.

Doctors may prescribe corticosteroids and immunosuppressive therapies. In some cases, people may need supplemental oxygen.

There are several ways in which a person can manage shortness of breath and increase their lung capacity.

People who experience shortness of breath may feel as though they need to take deeper breaths or breathe faster. However, this can worsen shortness of breath, as the muscles have to work harder.

People can try the following breathing techniques to alleviate shortness of breath:

  • Breathe in gently through the nose and blow out air through pursed lips, as though blowing out a candle.
  • Breathe in before doing something and breathe out afterward, such as breathing in before standing up and breathing out once upright.
  • Try paced breathing. For instance, breathe in for one step while walking, and walk one or two steps while breathing out.

How to improve lung capacity

Breathing exercises can help people improve their lung efficiency. The American Lung Association suggests trying the following breathing techniques:

  • Pursed lip breathing: With pursed lips, breathe in slowly, then breathe out for twice as long. This exercise reduces the number of breaths a person takes.
  • Belly Breathing: Breathe slowly through the nose, paying attention to filling the belly with air. Breathe out for 2–3 times as long as the inhale. Relax the neck and shoulders to ensure the diaphragm is doing the work.

Read about exercises to increase lung capacity.

If a person regularly experiences shortness of breath while walking, they should seek guidance from a doctor. Doctors can diagnose the cause and offer most suitable treatment options.

If a person is struggling to breathe or loses consciousness, someone nearby should contact emergency services immediately.

There are many causes of shortness of breath, some of which may worsen due to physical activity, such as walking.

In cases where shortness of breath is mild, a person may be able to manage it by avoiding triggers and practicing breathing exercises. In other cases, it may indicate an underlying medical condition that requires treatment.