Difference Between Dyspnea and Orthopnea

Main Difference – Dyspnea vs Orthopnea

Dyspnea and orthopnea are two signs associated with cardio-respiratory disorders. Many people confuse these two terms because both refer to a shortness of breath. However, the main difference between dyspnea and orthopnea is that dyspnea is shortness of breath on exertion whereas orthopnea is shortness of breath experienced when lying flat.

Therefore, in this article, we are trying to provide a precise knowledge about what each term refers to, their relationship with common respiratory conditions and management.

This article explains, 

1. What is Dyspnea?
     – Condition, Cause, Signs and Symptoms, Diagnosis and Management

2. What is Orthopnea?
     – Condition, Cause, Signs and Symptoms, Diagnosis and Management

3. What is the difference between Dyspnea and Orthopnea?

Difference Between Dyspnea and Orthopnea - Dyspnea vs Orthopnea Comparison Summary

What is Dyspnea

Dyspnea is defined as shortness of breath and can be further explained as a struggle to breathe, particularly showing some sort of an air-hunger. This is a common type of physiological response of the body to a raised carbon dioxide concentration in the blood.

The commonest causes of dyspnea include asthma, myocardial ischemia, pneumonia and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), anemia, pneumothorax and pulmonary edema whereas congestive cardiac failure, foreign body aspiration, anxiety attacks and over exertion can be some of the less common causes.

Shortness of breath is usually a subjective feeling and can be associated with sweating, trembling with or without a higher or lower blood pressure.

Since dyspnea is a symptom of many serious conditions, examinations and investigations need to be carried out in order to find the etiology. For example, ECG, and Troponin I examination must be done for a heart patient suffering from dyspnea; in a case of pulmonary edema, a chest x-ray is mandatory. Treating the underlying condition will automatically improve Dyspnea.

Main Difference - Dyspnea vs Orthopnea

What is Orthopnea

Orthopnea is defined as shortness of breath when lying flat. It is usually a sign of heart failure and physicians are highly concerned if a patient complains of this situation. Orthopnea is a result of deficient oxygen concentrations which tends to penetrate and accumulate more fluid into the lungs. This will, in turn, weaken the lungs and result in a poor respiratory function.

Commonly causes of orthopnea include asthma, chronic disruptive pulmonary disease, obstructive sleep apnea, congenital heart diseases, congestive cardiac failure, emphysema, gastroesophageal reflux disease and myocardial infarction.

Symptoms associated depend on the underlying condition and may include,

  • Shortness of breath on lying flat.
  • Ankle swelling
  • Need of having many pillows for sleeping with the upper body
  • Frequent cough
  • Sporadic chest pain
  • Dysphasia
  • Hoarseness of voice
  • Palpitations
  • Cyanosis

Similar to the diagnosis of Dyspnea, Orthopnea should also follow a complete history, physical examination and investigations which should be carried out based on the suspected etiological condition.

Orthopnea will usually resolve following the improvement of underlying disease with proper and timely management.

Difference Between Dyspnea and Orthopnea

Difference Between Dyspnea and Orthopnea

The main difference between dyspnea and orthopnea is in the definition itself.


Dyspnea is defined as shortness of breath on exertion.

Orthopnea can be defined as difficulty in breathing when lying flat.

In addition, shortness of breath experienced in orthopnea will be relieved after sitting or standing. But signs of dyspena may not be relieved so easily.

Most often, both these signs are triggered by similar causes and treated depending on the relevant etiology.

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About the Author: Embogama

Embogama is a passionate freelance writer for several years. Her areas of interest include general medicine, clinical medicine, health and fitness, Ayurveda medicine, psychology, counseling and piano music