Shortness of breath, or dyspnea, occurs when a person feels that they are unable, or less able than usual, to take enough air into the lungs.

The sensation of shortness of breath is subjective. For instance, some people may describe the feeling as a sensation of suffocating. For others, they may feel unable to take a deep breath.

Regardless of the exact description, experiencing shortness of breath is uncomfortable and may lead to additional symptoms or complications.

Shortness of breath may occur occasionally or frequently, and it has many different potential causes.

Keep reading to learn more about the causes, treatment, and prevention methods associated with shortness of breath.

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Many people experience shortness of breath during and after exercise. It can also occur due to changes in altitude or temperature.

Usually, however, there is more than one cause of shortness of breath.

Shortness of breath has a large variety of possible causes. The most common include:

Learn more about the causes of shortness of breath here.

People can also experience shortness of breath in certain contexts. The sections below will discuss these contexts in more detail.

Some people experience shortness of breath during pregnancy.

According to the March of Dimes, shortness of breath may develop in both early and late pregnancy, but for different reasons.

During early pregnancy, shortness of breath may develop due to an increase in progesterone. This increase in progesterone can cause a person to breathe more often. An increased respiratory rate may lead to a sensation of shortness of breath.

In later pregnancy, as the uterus grows, it can push up on the lungs. This growth of the uterus can lead to a decrease in full lung expansion and a feeling of shortness of breath.

When to contact a doctor

A person should contact a doctor if they are pregnant and experiencing shortness of breath alongside:

Shortness of breath may also develop in children.

Breathlessness in children may be due to exercise. However, it may also be a symptom of an underlying condition, including:

  • asthma
  • lung disease
  • a heart problem
  • pneumonia

When to contact a doctor

A person should contact a doctor if a child is short of breath and:

  • starts to wheeze
  • cannot sleep due to breathlessness
  • is out of breath while resting

Getting older does not, in itself, lead to shortness of breath.

However, older adults have an increased risk of developing certain conditions that may lead to shortness of breath.

For example, increased age is a risk factor for conditions such as congestive heart failure and COPD, both of which may cause shortness of breath.

When to contact a doctor

An older adult should contact a doctor if they experience breathlessness and:

  • chest pain or discomfort
  • dizziness or fainting
  • difficulty breathing at night
  • significant or worsening edema
  • coughing up blood

Although symptoms vary, some people with COVID-19 develop shortness of breath.

Shortness of breath with COVID-19 may develop due to inflammation in the lungs.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), shortness of breath develops more often in people who are hospitalized than in those who do not require hospital care.

When to contact a doctor

A person should seek testing if they experience any other symptoms of COVID-19, which may include:

Learn more about shortness of breath with COVID-19 here.

Coronavirus resources

For more advice on COVID-19 prevention and treatment, visit our coronavirus hub.

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What triggers shortness of breath in some people may not trigger it in others. However, some common triggers include:

  • Exercise: Physical exertion, such as exercise, often causes an increase in breathing and possibly shortness of breath.
  • Intense emotions: Strong emotions, such as fear or panic, can lead to difficulty breathing and feelings of breathlessness.
  • Change in altitude: Air pressure decreases as altitude increases. Because of this reduced air pressure, the volume of air a person inhales contains fewer oxygen molecules, which makes the body work harder to breathe. Although it may vary, altitude levels of 5,000 feet and above may lead to changes in breathing, including shortness of breath.
  • Environmental pollutants: Breathing in certain fumes, pollutants, and chemicals can irritate the lungs. Once irritation occurs, narrowing of the airways and inflammation may develop, leading to shortness of breath.

In some instances, an individual may want to contact a doctor for shortness of breath. A person should consider contacting a doctor for shortness of breath if it occurs for unknown reasons or seems unrelated to their activities or fitness level.

A person should seek emergency medical treatment if they experience a sudden onset of shortness of breath or chest discomfort, pain, or pressure.

A person should contact a doctor if they experience:

  • shortness of breath when resting
  • shortness of breath that wakes them up
  • shortness of breath after mild activities
  • fever
  • tightness in the throat
  • wheezing
  • a barking cough

A doctor will make a diagnosis of shortness of breath based on a physical exam and a person’s report of their symptoms.

The doctor will also note other symptoms that provide a clue as to the cause. For example, wheezing, coughing, and chest tightness may signify a respiratory condition as the cause.

In other instances, the doctor may order additional tests. These diagnostic tests may include:

Treatment for shortness of breath depends on the cause.

For example, when a medical condition causes shortness of breath, treatment will involve managing the underlying condition to reduce the symptoms.

Treatment may also include making certain behavioral changes, such as:

  • getting regular exercise, if possible
  • quitting smoking, if applicable
  • reducing exposure to pollutants

Learn about some home remedies for shortness of breath here.

It is not always possible to prevent all instances of shortness of breath. However, there are a few things that may help, including:

  • taking all asthma and COPD medications as prescribed
  • controlling indoor air pollution to reduce lung irritation
  • gradually increasing altitude to allow the body to adjust over time
  • managing any medical conditions that lead to fluid on the lungs
  • getting regular exercise, if possible, to prevent deconditioning

Shortness of breath involves a feeling of difficulty getting enough air into the lungs. In some cases, this occurs as a result of exercise. However, sometimes, shortness of breath is a symptom of a medical problem.

Although shortness of breath may be mild, it can also become severe and lead to a life threatening situation.

Usually, treating shortness of breath involves treating the underlying condition, if one is present.