Dyspnea: Symptoms, Causes, and Treatment

April 30, 2024

Dyspnea: Symptoms, Causes, and Treatment
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Shortness of breath, or dyspnea, is a condition in which breathing becomes difficult and is accompanied by chest tightness, wheezing, coughing, or palpitations in the heart. Doctors use a scale to determine how severe your shortness of breath is because conditions ranging from anxiety to asthma can cause it.

When this symptom appears abruptly and badly, an immediate visit to the emergency room (ER) without delay.

Table of Contents

  1. What is Dyspnea?
  2. Chronic and Acute Dyspnea
  3. Symptoms of Dyspnea
  4. Causes of Dyspnea
  5. Prevention of Dyspnea
  6. Treatment
  7. Conclusion
  8. Frequently asked questions

What is Dyspnea?

Shortness of breath is termed dyspnea. It is best described as a feeling of gasping for air. Excessive physical activity can cause dyspnea in anyone, and medical conditions such as heart or lung illness, obesity, or worry can also cause it.

Even unpleasant at times, dyspnea is an uncomfortable condition. If experiencing frequent bouts of abrupt, acute, or intermittent dyspnea immediate medical attention is advisable which will determine what is causing the same.

Chronic and Acute Dyspnea

The duration and onset of acute and chronic dyspnea are not the same. Their causes differ.

  • Chronic dyspnea: Breathlessness lasting several weeks or longer or recurring is known as chronic dyspnea. Chronic dyspnea is a symptom of persistent medical disorders such as COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease), heart failure, and asthma. 

Dyspnea may also be a constant side effect of insufficient activity since your muscles are attempting to pull more oxygen.

  • Acute dyspnea: This condition usually flares up within hours or days. It can also come on suddenly. Acute dyspnea can be brought on by allergies, anxiety, exertion, and illnesses (such as the flu or the common cold). Acute dyspnea can also be brought on by more serious illnesses including a heart attack, pulmonary embolism, or rapid airway narrowing (anaphylaxis).

Symptoms of Dyspnea

Excessive exertion, prolonged exposure to high elevations, or a combination of medical factors might cause dyspnea. Additionally, it may be acute—occurring all at once and leaving you feeling scared or overwhelmed. The severity of each case varies.

Dyspnea symptoms that a person may be experiencing include:

  • Breathlessness following physical effort
  • Breathing difficulties
  • Chest tightness
  • Quick shallow breathing
  • Sensations of suffocation or smothering
  • Palpitations in the heart, wheezing, and coughing

Sudden onset of dyspnea or severe symptoms could indicate a dangerous medical issue. 


Dyspnea can result from a variety of circumstances. It is most frequently caused by: 

  • Anxiety-related disorders
  • Asthma
  • An embolism, or blood clot in the lungs 
  • Rib fractures 
  • Adequate fluid surrounding the heart
  • Choking  
  • A collapsed lung
  • Heart attacks
  • Heart failure
  • Issues with heart rhythm
  • Anaemia, or a low red blood cell count
  • Other respiratory illnesses, such as pneumonia
  • Pregnancy
  • Anaphylaxis: A severe allergic reaction
  • Sudden blood loss

The following are a few more typical reasons for chronic dyspnea:

  • The fluid surrounding the lungs
  • Asthma
  • Inability to exercise without becoming fatigued
  • Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease(COPD) which includes emphysema
  • Heart illness, especially congestive heart failure
  • Sarcoidosis: A group of inflammatory cells in the body
  • Tissue inflammation surrounding the heart
  • Pulmonary hypertension, or elevated blood pressure in the lungs
  • Cardiomyopathy, or enlarged, thick, or stiff heart muscle
  • Obesity
  • Lung scarring
  • Dyspnea can also be caused by other conditions, such as tuberculosis and lung cancer

Prevention of Dyspnea

Dyspnea sufferers can take steps to enhance their general well-being and increase their breathing capacity.

Among them are: 

  • Giving up smoking.
  • Taking time to adjust to higher altitudes.
  • Exercising to strengthen the cardiovascular and pulmonary systems.
  • Avoiding other environmental triggers including chemical odours and wood smoke.

Treatment for Dyspnea

Dyspnea treatment centres on breathing assistance and preserving appropriate oxygen saturation levels during life-threatening circumstances. A face mask or nasal cannula (silicon prongs in nostrils) may be necessary for further oxygen therapy. Mechanical ventilation could be required in severe situations. To do this, a breathing apparatus must be attached to the patient.

Treatment for dyspnea deals with the underlying reason after the oxygen levels are steady. 

Other possible treatments are:

  • Medication 
  • Oxygen therapy
  • Pulmonary rehabilitation 
  • Lifestyle changes 
  • Surgery


Breathlessness or restricted breathing is a common feeling experienced by exercisers. It usually goes away on its own and is harmless.

Dyspnea during exercise, however, may indicate a systemic, cardiac, or respiratory ailment in certain individuals, many of which call for urgent medical intervention.

When dyspnea during exertion is abrupt, acute, inexplicable, or if it is accompanied by one of the more serious symptoms mentioned above, it is imperative to see a physician.

Frequently Asked Questions

1. How bad does dyspnea get?

Breathlessness varies in severity according to the circumstances. It should never be disregarded as it may indicate something potentially fatal or simply require no medical attention at all.

2. What distinguishes dyspnea from breathlessness?

Breathlessness and dyspnea are synonymous. The medical word for the sensation of not being able to breathe enough is dyspnea.

3. When should I seek medical support?

If you have severe dyspnea or find it difficult to carry out your daily activities, see a healthcare professional. At times, dyspnea may indicate a serious medical condition requiring prompt attention.

Inquire with your healthcare practitioner about any additional therapies available if you experience frequent dyspnea due to an underlying medical condition. 

4. Is dyspnea a cause for concern?

Exertion-induced dyspnea is a common, frequently benign condition that normally improves with rest. On the other hand, a person can need medical attention if their dyspnea is severe or appears out of nowhere.

Additionally, dyspnea may indicate underlying medical issues, some of which require extremely extensive care.

5. Is dyspnea common during pregnancy?

Dyspnea is a frequent pregnancy symptom. It is common to feel mild dyspnea during pregnancy as your body adjusts to being pregnant. To rule out any significant medical disorders, you should seek emergency medical assistance if experiencing chest pain, severe or prolonged shortness of breath, or any other alarming symptoms.

Disclaimer: We recommend consulting a Doctor before taking any action based on the above shared information.


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