What Causes Shortness of Breath, How to Manage Shortness of Breath

This article describes,

1. What is Shortness of Breath?
           – Definition and Features

2. What Causes Shortness of Breath?
           – Causes of Acute Shortness of Breath
           – Causes of Chronic Shortness of Breath

3. How to Manage Shortness of Breath?

What is Shortness of Breath

Shortness of breath, also known as dyspnea, is defined as an intense tightening sensation in the chest, air hunger or a feeling of suffocation which can occur on a long term basis or as a sudden reaction.

Generally, shortness of breath occurs as a result of an underlying medical condition, but this can also happen to a healthy individual due to strenuous exercises, extreme temperatures, massive obesity and exposure to high altitudes.

Major diseases which can give rise to this symptoms are usually related to the cardiovascular system, respiratory system, infections, allergies and certain nutritional deficiencies like iron deficiency.

What Causes Shortness of Breath

Acute shortness of breath which may occur from few minutes to hours is quite different from the chronic condition which usually develops over weeks to months.

Causes of Acute Shortness of Breath

As far as the nature of this condition is considered, there will be several other associated symptoms as follows.

  • Respiratory tract infections (Pneumonia): Usually accompanied by symptoms like fever and productive cough which gives out sputum or mucus.
  • Anaphylaxis: Associated with a rash followed by itching and swelling along with an exposure to a possible unusual substance or occasion which can arouse an allergic reaction in the body.
  • Asthma: A sudden onset of shortness of breath associated with wheezing.
  • An obstruction in the respiratory tract followed by ingestion or inhalation of a foreign object (peanut, toys)
  • Thrombus: A blood clot causing an obstruction in an artery supplying the lungs.
  • Pneumothorax or a lung collapse followed by trauma, stabbing, road traffic accident,
  • Heart attack or Myocardial Infarction due to the death of cardiac muscles as a result of poor perfusion cutting down the oxygen-rich blood supply. This can often be associated with the tightening type of a chest pain radiating to the neck, jaw, shoulders, abdomen,
  • Pregnancy: This fascinating physiological phenomenon can cause changes in the circulatory and respiratory systems of women, resulting in an acute onset of shortness of breath which can last throughout the pregnancy.

 Causes of Chronic Shortness of Breath  

Shortness of breath persisting for more than 3 months duration is usually referred to as chronic shortness of breath and may sometimes initiate as an acute symptom and last longer, or appear from time to time like symptoms of heart failure and acute asthma exacerbations respectively.

  • Asthma
  • Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD): A lung condition seen in chronic smokers which is characterized by the features of Emphysema and Chronic bronchitis.
  • Interstitial lung disease:  A collection of lung diseases which consists of damages and scarring of the lung tissue.
  • Cardiomyopathy: A heart condition which leads to an enlargement of the organ, compromising the effective functioning (pumping) of the heart.
  • Deconditioning: A collective term used to describe obesity and over weight which occurs as a result of poor physical exercises.
  • Iron deficiency anemia: Poor intake of dietary iron, malabsorption and chronic blood loss due to various pathological conditions can lead to a reduction of oxygen-carrying capacity in blood, giving rise to shortness of breath over exertion.

What Causes Shortness of Breath, How to Manage Shortness of Breath

How to Manage Shortness of Breath

It is highly recommended to seek medical advice if you come across any of the symptoms mentioned above since timely interventions can correct most of the underlying health conditions which are known to give rise to shortness of breath.


The physician will take a complete history from you about the nature and duration of signs and symptoms along with a thorough physical examination which will help to identify the possible cause.

Furthermore, several investigations such as blood analysis, Chest X-ray, Ultra sounding scanning will be important to establish the correct diagnosis.

  • Hematocrit and hemoglobin- A complete blood count can be used to identify changes in blood, possibly resulting in Iron deficiency anemia
  • BNP levels- Changes in the respiratory system can be identified.
  • Chest X-ray- Exclude pneumonia, scarring and lung inflammation
  • Oximetry and lung function test
  • Echocardiography
  • EKG to identify signs of a heart attack


The treatment modalities for shortness of breath mainly depend on the etiology. Therefore it is highly important to establish the most accurate diagnosis in order to proceed with treatments accordingly.

Image Courtesy: 

“Runners panting” By Rennett Stowe (CC BY 2.0) via Commons Wikimedia

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