What Are the Top Causes of Shortness of Breath?

woman having trouble breathingIn some cases, it’s perfectly normal to feel out of breath. If you’ve been exercising, for example, or at a high altitude, you may temporarily feel short of breath without necessarily having a reason to be concerned. But if you feel shortness of breath without an obvious reason, it can be a signal that you need to see a doctor.

In this case, shortness of breath – also known as dyspnea – is probably caused by a medical reason that needs further investigation and treatment.

In this blog, NYC lung doctor Dr. Marc Bowen explains more about the top causes of shortness of breath.

What are the symptoms of dyspnea?

Dyspnea is characterized as the feeling of being out of breath. You may experience the following symptoms:

  • Uncomfortable breathing
  • Shortness of breath
  • The inability to get enough air
  • Feeling of smothering or suffocation

If your dyspnea is accompanied by chest pain, fainting, or nausea, this could be a medical emergency, and you should call 911.

What are the causes of shortness of breath?

Dyspnea can be caused by a wide variety of conditions, many of which are related to the heart or lungs. Common causes of shortness of breath include the following:

  • Narrowing of the airway (bronchospasm)
  • Not enough oxygen in the blood (hypoxemia)
  • Pneumonia
  • Stress or anxiety
  • A tumor that blocks your airway
  • Low red blood cell count (anemia)
  • A blood clot
  • Asthma
  • Excess fluid around the heart (cardiac tamponade)
  • Excess fluid around the lungs (pleural effusion)
  • Heart failure
  • Hiatal hernia
  • Low blood pressure
  • Blood clot in an artery in the lung (pulmonary embolism)
  • COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease)
  • Scarring of lung tissue
  • Collapsed lung
  • Heart dysfunction
  • Lung cancer
  • Tuberculosis
  • High blood pressure within the blood vessels of the lungs (pulmonary hypertension)
  • Heart muscle issues
  • Heart rhythm problems
  • Swelling of the membrane around the heart (pericarditis)
  • Broken ribs
  • Obesity

How is the cause of shortness of breath determined?

Your doctor will talk to you about your symptoms and medical history, gaining information about when your dyspnea started, how long it’s been happening, whether it comes on suddenly or gradually, and whether anything makes it worse (such as exercising, cold weather, or lying down).

He or she will also conduct a physical exam that includes listening to the heart and lungs. In addition, your doctor may check your legs for signs of swelling, which could possibly suggest the presence of a heart issue or blood clot. The oxygen levels in your blood may also be measured by placing a sensor on your finger.

All of this information may help point your doctor in the direction of a possible cause, which can be confirmed or ruled out by additional testing. This may include a chest X-ray, electrocardiography (ECG) to check blood flow to the heart, pulmonary function testing, special imaging tests, or blood tests.

What are the treatment options for shortness of breath?

Your doctor can recommend some actions that may help you breathe easier. These include:

  • Receiving supplemental oxygen
  • Using a humidifier and avoiding smoke and pet dander
  • Practicing relaxation techniques
  • Taking anti-anxiety medications if needed
  • Losing weight if you need to
  • Stopping smoking

Ultimately, the treatment you need depends on accurately identifying the cause of your dyspnea. The steps listed above can help you breathe easier, but they won’t correct a possible underlying medical issue.

If you’re experiencing shortness of breath, make an appointment with New York City pulmonologist (lung specialist) Dr. Marc Bowen of MXBowen, Physician P.C., Health & Breathing Center. Dr. Bowen has nearly three decades of experience and is dedicated to helping patients breathe easier. He’ll work with you to find the cause of your dyspnea and will help you get the effective treatment you need for the underlying cause of your problem.

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