People can experience shortness of breath while walking for a number of reasons. Sometimes, this occurs as a result of conditions such as anxiety, asthma, or obesity.

Less commonly, shortness of breath signals a more serious underlying medical condition.

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 it can 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.

Anxiety is a common mental health condition that can cause shortness of breath, along with many other symptoms, such as:

  • muscle tension
  • a rapid heartbeat
  • sweating
  • a sense of dread or panic
  • agitation
  • a feeling of not being in control

People with anxiety may feel persistently on edge, which may lead to regularly feeling tired or short of breath.

People with anxiety often respond to mental health treatment, which can improve their quality of life. This may involve:

  • talk therapies, which can help people understand the reasons for their anxiety and how to manage their emotions
  • medications, such as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors
  • activities such as mindfulness

Learn more about treatment for anxiety here.

Asthma is a common condition that has varying levels of 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 will 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 are more at 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.

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 progressively find it 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 require oxygen and bronchodilator therapy.

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

Pulmonary embolism is a condition that occurs when the blood flow in the pulmonary artery becomes disrupted. 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 that have 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.

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.

Breathing techniques people can try to alleviate this symptom include:

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

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, it is necessary to 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.