What is dyspnea?

Patients with dyspnea often describe tightness of the chest and a smothering sensation. These feelings can cause anxiety and psychological distress that makes symptoms worse, creating a vicious cycle.
Patients with dyspnea often describe tightness of the chest and a smothering sensation. These feelings can cause anxiety and psychological distress that makes symptoms worse, creating a vicious cycle.

Dyspnea is the medical term for shortness of breath. Patients with dyspnea often describe tightness of the chest and a smothering sensation. These feelings can cause anxiety and psychological distress that makes symptoms worse, creating a vicious cycle.  

Dyspnea isn't a condition or a disorder, but is instead a symptom that can be caused by many medical conditions. It's a self-reported symptom, since health professionals can't observe their patients and judge the severity of their dyspnea. Some health facilities have trained their staff to have patients to rate their dyspnea just as they rate their pain.

Many people experience dyspnea at some point in their lives. Around one quarter of patients seen on an outpatient basis report breathlessness. 

If you have dyspnea, treating the condition that is causing it should give you relief. If there is no cure for your underlying condition, your doctor may show you some ways to manage your shortness of breath. 

Symptoms of dyspnea

It's somewhat inaccurate to discuss the symptoms of dyspnea since it is already a symptom. But those with dyspnea report these sensations:

Awareness of breath

Dyspnea has been described as an abnormal awareness of breathing. Humans are mostly unaware of the breathing process that keeps them alive. For that reason, being conscious of breathing is an uncomfortable experience that can cause anxiety.

Tightness of the chest

Dyspnea can cause you to feel a constriction in the chest. This tightness can make you feel that you can't get a deep breath and can lead to a smothering sensation. This sensation is sometimes described as air hunger. Some people say they feel that they have to work very hard to take a breath.

Other sensations

Sometimes people with dyspnea report feeling overheated. They may also feel panicky or overwhelmed. For a number of people, dyspnea can be accurately described as a debilitating sensation.

Causes of dyspnea

In many cases, dyspnea is not caused by low oxygen saturation in the blood. It's possible to have dyspnea with normal blood oxygen levels. 

Some cases of dyspnea are caused by anxiety, and shortness of breath is a common symptom of panic attack. Still, most cases of dyspnea have some physical cause, many of them falling into one of these categories:

Respiratory causes

It may seem logical that dyspnea stems from problems with the lungs and respiratory system, and that's but not always true. Dyspnea can be triggered by breathing problems such as asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). 

If you seek medical help for dyspnea, your doctor will examine your lungs by listening for breath sounds such as wheezes and crackles. Fingers with widened tips, a condition known as clubbing, can also be a sign of respiratory problems. Tests such as chest X-ray and bronchoscopy can give your doctor more information. 

Cardiovascular causes

Dyspnea can occur when the heart doesn’t beat strongly enough to meet the body's need for oxygenated blood. If you have dyspnea from cardiac problems, you will probably have other signs of heart trouble. You may exhibit reduced heart sounds or irregular heartbeat. 

Your doctor may be able to observe fluid buildup in the body, called edema. The jugular veins may be distended. Diagnostic tests such as echocardiogram and stress testing can be helpful.

Conditions of the nerves and muscles

Diseases such as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis and myasthenia gravis can cause general bodily weakness that can lead to dyspnea. Another cause is general physical deconditioning, in which the body weakens from inactivity. Deconditioning can result from surgery or serious illness, or it can come from poor lifestyle choices.


COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease) is the same as adult-onset asthma. See Answer

When to see the doctor for dyspnea

Exertion, high temperatures, and high elevations can bring on dyspnea even if you are healthy. If you are overweight, you may also get short of breath easily. In these cases, you do not need to see a doctor. 

If you have a sudden onset of breathlessness that prevents you from functioning normally, you should seek medical care immediately. Other signs that you need immediate care include: 

You should also see a doctor if you have symptoms such as fever, chills, and cough with your shortness of breath. You should also see a doctor for less acute cases of dyspnea, although you don't have to go to the emergency room or urgent care.

Treating dyspnea

Dyspnea is usually treated by treating the underlying cause. Also, your doctor may be able to give you medications or inhalers that will help you breathe more easily. If your oxygen levels are low, supplementary oxygen may help.  

Lifestyle changes can improve dyspnea. Losing weight can be especially effective, as obesity increases the risk of asthma and other breathing problems. Being overweight can also cause joint pain and other conditions that make moving difficult, leading to deconditioning.

If the underlying cause of your breathlessness cannot be treated, or if the cause is undetermined, you may get relief from learning some breathing techniques. You can do this on your own or as part of a pulmonary rehabilitation program. 

It may also be possible to fool your brain into thinking that you are breathing more easily. One way to do this is by using a hand-held fan to direct air toward the face. 72% of the participants across three studies have benefitted from breathing with a fan.

When should I be concerned about my child's breathing?

Most children will get an infection at some point that affects their respiratory system and can result in breathing problems. Children under the age of 3 often have more severe symptoms than older children, and are at risk of becoming seriously ill if not monitored closely.

It’s important to be aware of what symptoms to look for to know when your child needs to see a doctor. Signs and symptoms of respiratory distress include:

  • Pale or bluish color of the skin, especially around the lips, eyes, hands, feet, and nail beds
  • Retractions (chest pulls in with each breath, especially around the collarbone and ribs)
  • Flaring (widening of the nostrils)
  • Wheezing (noisy breathing)
  • Clammy skin (cool, sweaty skin)
  • Changes in mood such as irritability
  • Drowsiness
  • Difficulty waking up
  • Loss of appetite
  • Change in posture (trying to breathe easier by leaning forward or tilting head up or backwards)

If your child is having trouble breathing because of respiratory distress, you need to seek medical attention immediately.

What causes respiratory problems?

Upper respiratory tract infections

The upper respiratory system includes the nose, mouth, sinuses, and throat. Upper respiratory tract infections may be caused by viruses (most common), bacteria, and fungi (rare). Symptoms of upper respiratory infections include:

  • Nasal blockage, causing difficulty breathing and mouth breathing
  • Noisy breathing or snoring
  • Discomfort
  • Irritability
  • Restlessness
  • Loss of appetite
  • Fatigue
  • Cough
  • Fever
  • Ear pain

Lower respiratory tract infections

The lower respiratory system includes the lungs and bronchi (the airways). Symptoms are more severe than those of upper respiratory infections. Lower respiratory system infections usually require medical attention. They can be caused by bacteria, viruses, and fungi. Symptoms of lower respiratory system infections include:

  • Coughing throughout the day and/or night
  • Fever
  • Irritability
  • Restlessness
  • Decreased appetite
  • Fatigue
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Rapid breathing
  • Wheezing (noisy breathing)
  • Flaring (widening) of the nostrils
  • Use of the neck, chest, and abdominal muscles to breathe (drawing these muscles in while breathing)


Allergies are very common in children and can cause respiratory problems. Symptoms of allergies include:


Asthma typically does not occur in infants and very young children, but the risk of asthma increases with age.

In young children, coughing may be the only symptom of mild asthma. Wheezing and shortness of breath at night time can occur as asthma worsens. In severe asthma, there may be difficulty breathing and wheezing. Allergies and asthma often occur together.

Other causes of respiratory problems

  • Exposure to cigarette smoke, fumes, and other pollutants
  • Foreign body aspiration (inhalation) causing airway obstruction
  • Disorders at birth (genetic causes) such as cystic fibrosis


COPD Foods to Boost Your Health - COPD Diet Tips See Slideshow

How to prevent respiratory problems

Breathing problems can’t always be avoided, especially in children. However, the risk of many respiratory infections can be reduced by taking the following steps:

  • Keep your child away from cigarette smoke, fumes, and other pollutants.
  • Keep your child’s surroundings dust-free.
  • Be aware that your child may be allergic to essential oils in humidifiers, in-door air fresheners, perfumes, and mold growing in vents.
  • Avoid using baby powder or cornstarch on your child because it can irritate their lungs.
  • Make sure anyone handling your child practices good hand hygiene to prevent the spread of germs. Maintain your child’s hand hygiene as well.
  • Keep your child away from sick children and adults.

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Medically Reviewed on 4/11/2022
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