Dyspnea: How to Recognize, Treat and Prevent it

Published September 23rd, 2021 by Erik Rivera
Fact Checked by
Jacqueline Hensler
Medically Reviewed:
Dr. Angel Rivera

Dyspnea 101 | Causes | Symptoms | Treatment | How to Prevent

Dyspnea is a medical term for feeling out of breath, usually when the body does not have enough oxygen. It can be caused by various things that affect your respiratory system, such as asthma or COPD, but it can also be caused by heart problems like congestive heart failure. Dyspnea may also occur if you are in an environment with poor air quality or high levels of pollution. We’ll explore the causes and symptoms of dyspnea, how to treat it, and what you can do to prevent it in the future.

What is dyspnea?

Dyspnea, also known as shortness of breath or difficulty breathing, can be a sign that something serious such as heart disease is wrong with your body. It occurs when our lungs are not able to get enough oxygen into the bloodstream because they do not fully expand during inhalation due to either an obstruction, such as a blockage in airflow, or decreased air exchange caused by lung diseases like asthma and emphysema. While it may seem like you should simply breathe more deeply, this does little if you are suffering from respiratory distress. Rather than filling up larger portions of your lungs successfully, if you are struggling with dyspnea you are only able to draw in small amounts of air at a time.

What causes Dyspnea?

Dyspnea is a medical term used to describe difficult or labored breathing. It can be acute and short-lived, such as with physical exertion, but it also occurs in chronic diseases like bronchitis and lung cancer. Difficulties arise when you experience dyspnea for no apparent reason. The sensation of not being able to breathe normally usually signals that something serious may be going on inside your body. A number of conditions could lead to dyspnea such as cardiac arrhythmias (irregular heartbeat), asthma attacks, and pulmonary embolism are just a few examples. If left untreated they could prove fatal if severe enough.

Some of the most common causes of dyspnea for patients include: 

  • Lung disease, which can also affect the chest wall, such as pneumonia and chronic bronchitis
  • Heart attack
  • Pulmonary fibrosis
  • Heart disease which prevents blood from being sufficiently oxygenated throughout the body 
  • Anemia caused by having too few red blood cells or low hemoglobin levels that can't transport enough oxygen 
  • Respiratory infections like pneumonia, bronchitis, whooping cough, influenza, tuberculosis (TB), or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) 
  • Damage to the nerves connected to breathing muscles resulting in difficulty inhaling properly called central sleep apnea

Dyspnea can also be a very normal reaction from the body, even for a healthy person. For example, if you are in the middle of or just concluded a strenuous exercise then you would expect yourself to be breathing heavier and have some shortness of breath. High altitude can also cause dyspnea due to a lack of oxygen at extreme heights. It only becomes a problem when it is caused by abnormal circumstances, such as some of the causes above.

What are the symptoms of dyspnea?

When you are experiencing symptoms of dyspnea, it often feels like you're not getting enough air into your lungs when breathing. Even though you bring a lot of air into their lungs with each breath, there isn't much oxygen reaching the bloodstream to adequately supply your tissues and organs. This feeling may cause you to become very anxious because it’s an unfamiliar feeling to not be able to breathe properly, a feeling that can be scary. 

Some common symptoms include: 

  • Shortness of breath 
  • Dizziness 
  • Anxiety or feeling stressed which can also lead to panic attacks 
  • Fainting spells, especially upon standing up quickly from lying down

Although there are other symptoms, you should see a doctor immediately if you experience any of the following:

  • Shortness of breath that lasts longer than a few minutes or happens while at rest
  • Chest pain, which may be worse when breathing in
  • Coughing up blood, when you can expect to see pink sputum, which can be a sign of blood clots in the lungs among other things 
  • Difficulty speaking because it's hard to breathe

This is particularly true if the voice sounds like it is wheezing. You should also go to the doctor if you feel dizzy due to dyspnea–this might indicate low levels of oxygen in your blood. If left untreated, severe respiratory diseases could lead to cardiac arrest and death. These are some of the reasons to see your doctor or pulmonologist but never hesitate to discuss any other symptoms you may be experiencing. 

How do you treat dyspnea?

Dyspnea treatments can vary depending on the underlying cause. It can be treated through medications, oxygen therapy, or sometimes even surgery depending on what is causing it. Pulmonary rehabilitation, or rehabbing your lungs through breathing exercises, can also be an option. Your doctor may use blood tests to determine the cause of your condition. Dyspnea is a dangerous symptom that should not be ignored and if you experience this for long periods of time then seek out medical attention. Treating the root cause of the problem, for example, exercising if your dyspnea is due to obesity or not living in a house with a cat if you are asthmatic and allergic to them, can often be a solution. 

Can you prevent dyspnea?

There are many things you can do to prevent dyspnea such as quitting smoking, exercising regularly, and eating healthy foods but it's also important to note that everyone will experience some form of dyspnea at one point in their life–so don't panic. Maintaining a healthy sleep schedule by getting at least eight hours of sleep a night as an adult can also help avoid dyspnea. In most cases, dyspnea is a temporary condition that will pass in time. As always, see your healthcare provider if you experience symptoms of chronic dyspnea as it could be more serious than just being out of breath when exercising or from running upstairs too quickly.

Summary

There are many different causes of dyspnea, but it's important to see your doctor if you experience it for an extended period of time as it could be chronic. When you are experiencing symptoms like shortness of breath, wheezing, and chest pains, which can also lead to panic attacks and fainting spells you should seek immediate help because if left untreated severe respiratory diseases could potentially lead to cardiac arrest and death. It is possible to sometimes prevent dyspnea by quitting smoking, exercising regularly, eating healthy foods, getting enough sleep each night (about eight hours), and avoiding triggers such as allergens. If left untreated, dyspnea can become life-threatening so it's important to seek medical help should you believe you are suffering from chronic dyspnea due to a condition. Ask your doctor or pharmacist for more information should you have any further questions. 

References and Source: 

NIH – Chapter 11, Dyspnea, Orthopenea, and Paroxysmal Nocturnal Dyspena

Shortness of Breath - Wikipedia

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