Shortness of breath; Breathlessness; Difficulty breathing; Dyspnea
No standard definition exists for difficulty breathing. Some people may feel breathless with only mild exercise (for example, climbing stairs), even though they do not have a medical condition. Others may have advanced lung disease but never feel short of breath.
Wheezing is one form of breathing difficulty in which you make a high-pitched sound when you breathe out.
A blockage of the air passages in your nose, mouth, or throat may lead to difficulty breathing.
Heart disease can cause breathlessness if your heart is unable to pump enough blood to supply oxygen to your body. If your brain, muscles, or other body organs do not receive enough oxygen, a sense of breathlessness may occur.
Lung disease can cause breathlessness.
Sometimes emotional distress, such as anxiety, can lead to difficulty breathing.
The following problems may cause breathing difficulty:
Sometimes, a small amount of breathing difficulty may be normal, and is not cause for concern. Severe nasal congestion is one example. Strenuous exercise, especially when you do not exercise often, is another example.
If breathing difficulty is new or is getting worse, it may be due to a serious problem. Though many causes are not dangerous and are easily treated, call your health care provider for any breathing difficulty.
If you are being treated for a long-term problem with your lungs or heart, follow your health care provider's directions to help with that problem.
If the breathing difficulty is severe, you may need to go to a hospital. You may receive many different medications to treat the cause of breathing difficulty.
If your blood oxygen level is very low, you may need to receive oxygen. High doses of supplemental oxygen may be hazardous for some patients, however. Oxygen is not always needed for shortness of breath.
Schwartzstein RM, Adams L. Dyspnea. In: Mason RJ, Broaddus VC, Martin TR, et al, eds. Murray and Nadel's Textbook of Respiratory Medicine. 5th ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Saunders Elsevier; 2010:chap 28.
David C. Dugdale, III, MD, Professor of Medicine, Division of General Medicine, Department of Medicine, University of Washington School of Medicine. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, A.D.A.M., Inc.