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Shortness of Breath: Characteristics, Causes & Treatment

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What is Shortness of Breath?

It can be scary to feel like you can’t breathe. We rely so much on the air we breathe, we rarely think about it until something’s wrong. Healthy people can deal with shortness of breath in certain situations, but in most other cases, it is a sign of an underlying illness. It’s important to know about the warning signs and when you should call your doctor. Shortness of breath is one of the most common reasons why people consult their doctors (x).

Shortness of breath is also known as dyspnea, or air hunger. Because it is an umbrella term for such a wide range of characteristics, there isn’t one established definition (x). There are many different ways people can experience feeling short of breath. Some may feel like they are gasping for air, while others describe a feeling like they can’t take a deep breath. No matter what the sensation feels like, being unable to breathe is very distressing. Here are some common signs people describe when they have shortness of breath.

Shortness of Breath Characteristics

Inability to Take a Full Breath

Some people describe a feeling of not being able to breathe as deep as normal. No matter how deep a breath you try to take, you can’t seem to get enough air. In other cases, like if you’re hyperventilating or gasping for air, you’re then unable to take a full breath because of the strong breathing reaction you’re experiencing.

Difficulty Breathing

Difficulty breathing is another common description of shortness of breath. It’s a feeling of breathlessness or like you can’t breathe properly. Some people describe a feeling like they are gasping for air. Others may find that breathing is so exhausting they just can’t keep up.

Wheezing

The sound of wheezing while breathing comes from air moving through narrowed airways. That’s what produces the high-pitched sound we call wheezing. That’s a sign of swelling and inflammation in your airways that can occur due to a variety of different causes.

Tightness in Chest

Tightness around your chest while you breathe is an uncomfortable feeling. Sometimes, it may even be painful. Because you feel like you can’t expand your chest to inhale, it feels like you’re not getting enough air.

Other Characteristics

All these signs of shortness of breath may or may not be due to a serious medical problem. So, how do you know when to call a doctor? The Harvard Medical School (x) suggests if your symptoms are severe and begin abruptly, you likely need to go to the doctor. They’ve also shared some red flags to watch out for. Some of these include:

  • Chest pain or discomfort
  • Fever
  • Swollen ankles and feet
  • Painful cough
  • Unusual tiredness

Being short of breath may be a sign of a medical problem, but it can also happen in healthy people too. High altitude, sudden extreme changes to temperature and strenuous exercise are all examples of situations in which healthy people can feel short of breath. In such cases, it’s not a sign of an underlying health problem, but rather the body’s reaction to changes in the environment.

If none of these situations apply to you, then shortness of breath may be a sign of an underlying health issue. There are many causes for shortness of breath ranging from a simple viral infection to more serious, life-threatening conditions. If your symptoms are mild and temporary, you might need to see a doctor, but it’s likely not an emergency.

Causes of Shortness of Breath

Allergies

If you’re always sniffling and rubbing itchy eyes, you might have an allergy. Allergies can sometimes make shortness of breath worse, or contribute to conditions that cause difficulty breathing. If you have wheezing or trouble breathing with your allergies, you probably have allergic asthma (x). Common allergic triggers for asthma include various pollens, dust mites, pet dander, mold and cockroaches (x).

It’s hard to know exactly what you’re allergic too. However, an allergist can be helpful to try and narrow down potential causes. If your symptoms keep coming back and you can’t find an explanation, it might be worth a trip to see one. In more severe cases, you might experience what’s called an anaphylactic reaction to something you’re allergic too. An anaphylactic reaction is a strong allergic response that can be life-threatening. Common triggers are bug bites and stings and peanut or shellfish allergy. If this happens, call for emergency medical care (x).

Anxiety

The feeling of breathlessness is linked to anxiety and panic attacks (x). When you get shortness of breath due to anxiety, you’re still getting enough oxygen to your lungs. However, it feels like you can’t get enough air. What a trick our mind can play on us! Though it’s not physically dangerous, it can be very distressing to experience. The worst part is it can be like a vicious cycle. Feeling short of breath can make anxiety even worse. Some people who get panic attacks may feel short of breath during an episode too (x).

Asthma

Aside from an airway infection, asthma is among the most common diagnoses for people coming to see a doctor for shortness of breath (x). Asthma is a type of allergy where your airways get inflamed, making it harder to breathe. Some people have such severe asthma that they need to stay overnight in the hospital. However, there are also many people with only mild forms of asthma. You might have asthma and not even know it. There are also forms of asthma that are triggered occasionally by specific exposures. Allergy-induced asthma triggers shortness of breath only when exposed to things like pollen or dust mites (x). Other people may have asthma triggered by weather, and they are either sensitive to cold or hot temperatures (x), or only when they are exercising (x).

Pneumonia

In some cases, shortness of breath can be a sign of infection. Pneumonia is a viral or bacterial infection of the lungs that make it harder for you to breathe. Because it’s an infection, you might develop a fever. The fluid and mucus may cause you to cough too (x). Pneumonia may be mild or severe depending on your overall health, age and the type of bug causing the infection. Most cases will need at least a visit to your primary doctor. Some situations can even be life-threatening. There are many ways to prevent pneumonia, including maintaining overall health, not smoking and getting a vaccine that protects us from the most common bugs that cause the infection (x).

Other Causes

There are many reasons why you could get short of breath. Besides a condition affecting the lungs or anxiety, shortness of breath could indicate a problem with the circulatory system or heart as well (x). Heart failure, a heart attack, and a blood clot in the lungs are potential, life-threatening causes for shortness of breath. That’s why it’s important to recognize warning signs and call your doctor immediately to seek medical care (x). One of the most common causes for feeling short of breath due to a chronic heart condition is heart failure. When you have heart failure, your heart is too weak to pump blood effectively, causing a backup of fluid in the lungs (x). Feeling short of breath at night, medically known as paroxysmal nocturnal dyspnea, is one of the symptoms of heart failure (x). Other signs include leg swelling and orthopnea, which is the medical term for feeling short of breath when you’re lying down (x). Other potential health conditions that cause shortness of breath include low blood pressure, other lung infections, anemia and emphysema (x, x).

Causes of Shortness of Breath

Remedies for Shortness of Breath

Ginger

You can spice up more than just your culinary palate! Ginger is a favorite aromatic dietary condiment cultivated for over 5,000 years (x). Besides being a flavorful ingredient, the active properties of ginger, known as rhizomes, have long been known for their anti-inflammatory properties. Ginger can also help you with your breathing. One study from Columbia University observed that ginger helps relax the smooth muscle of your airways and decreases its hypersensitivity by changing the calcium levels in the cells (x). Another study performed by French scientists observed the anti-inflammatory effects of ginger on the airways of mice (x). They concluded that their evidence points to the potential therapeutic powers of ginger for people who have allergic asthma.

You can choose to supplement your lung health with ginger by either using the natural root or selecting a high-quality extract. The advantage of using an herbal extract over the natural herb is that it’s easier to monitor dosing. Though there aren’t any official guidelines for how ginger should be dosed, it’s safe to use between 250-1,000 mg every day (x). Side effects of using ginger are uncommon. Rarely, it may cause mild heartburn or digestive upset (x). There is potential for ginger to affect the clotting of blood, so people taking blood thinners should exercise caution. As always, talk with your doctor before starting any new supplement.

Black Coffee

Getting a jumpstart to your day could do more than awaken your mind. It turns out coffee may help improve your breathing too. One of the drugs used to treat asthma, known as theophylline, is very similar in property to caffeine. Both help to open up your airways so you can breathe easier, helping people with symptoms of wheezing, coughing and difficulty breathing. In people with asthma, caffeine was found to help with lung function for up to four hours (x). Though it’s not as strong as an inhaler, coffee can be an additional therapeutic agent to help you temporarily breathe easier if you have asthma (x).

A typical dose of caffeine in a cup of black coffee is about 60 mg. You can buy pills in varying doses up to 200 mg. It’s recommended by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) that up to 400 mg per day is safe for most adults (x). Though generally safe to consume, coffee can cause some side effects. If you’re dependent on drinking it every day, skipping a day or cutting back can produce migraines, insomnia and restlessness. Other side effects include frequently having to go to the bathroom, digestive upset and heartburn. Taking too much caffeine can produce tremors or heart palpitations too (x). Some people are more sensitive to coffee than others and may feel these side effects with just a cup or two of black coffee (x). The FDA also advises against coffee consumption for children.

Perform Deep Breathing Exercises

Feeling breathless can be a symptom of anxiety and stress. Deep breathing is a type of relaxation technique that can help you combat shortness of breath related to panic attacks and anxiety (x). Also known as diaphragmatic breathing, these exercises can also help people with chronic lung conditions, such as emphysema (x). By practicing long, slow breaths, you give yourself a better chance of clearing out stale air from the lungs that accumulates in certain lung conditions like asthma (x).

Using a technique called “belly breathing,” you can practice deep breathing for healthier lungs at home. In this type of breathing, you focus on expanding and contracting your stomach with every breath without moving your chest (x). The key is to keep your chest as still as you can while you breathe, and to breathe out slowly through pursed lips, kind of like you are whistling (x). After you’ve mastered belly breathing, you can even try more advanced techniques like roll breathing, or 4-7-8 breathing (x).

Other Remedies and Supplements

Though there is limited science supporting its effectiveness, ginseng is a popular therapy used in traditional Chinese medicine to alleviate shortness of breath in various respiratory illnesses (x). Researchers have also found that nutritional supplements like vitamin C, vitamin D, vitamin E, omega-3 fatty acids, choline and turmeric may help prevent the development of asthma and other chronic respiratory illnesses (x).

The Bottom Line

The causes for feeling out of breath comes from a wide range of potential causes. You could be simply reacting to an environmental change or have a more serious, underlying medical condition. Pay attention to red flags such as the sudden, severe onset of symptoms, chest pain, sudden extreme fatigue, swollen ankles or feet and high fever. If severe, you may need emergency medical attention. Most of the time, shortness of breath may require some medical care, but isn’t an emergency. You can try home remedies to help alleviate symptoms of shortness of breath. Ginger, coffee and special breathing exercises are examples of options you can try at home. The science supporting alternative remedies is limited, so discuss these treatment options with your doctor before getting started.

By: Lulu Wong

About the author

Ryan Quigley

Graduate of Longwood University in Virginia. Part-time sports journalist covering the Vegas Golden Knights.


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