Shortness of breath has many causes affecting either the breathing passages and lungs or the heart or blood vessels. An average 150-pound (70 kilogram) adult will breathe at an average rate of 14 breaths per minute at rest. Excessively rapid breathing is referred to as hyperventilation. Shortness of breath is also referred to as dyspnea.
Doctors will further classify dyspnea as either occurring at rest or being associated with activity, exertion, or exercise. They will also want to know if the dyspnea occurs gradually or all of a sudden. Each of these symptoms help to detect the precise cause of the shortness of breath.
Causes of shortness of breath include asthma, bronchitis, pneumonia, pneumothorax, anemia, lung cancer, inhalation injury, pulmonary embolism, anxiety, COPD, high altitude with lower oxygen levels, congestive heart failure, arrhythmia, allergic reaction, anaphylaxis, subglottic stenosis, interstitial lung disease, obesity, tuberculosis, epiglottitis, emphysema, pulmonary fibrosis, pulmonary artery hypertension, pleurisy, croup, polymyositis, Guillain-Barré syndrome, sarcoidosis, rib fracture, carbon monoxide poisoning, and aerobic exercise.
Shortness of breath can be associated with symptoms of
- bloody sputum,
- chest injury,
- chest pain,
- chest tightness,
- heart palpitations,
- labored breathing,
- neck pain,
- pain with inspiration (pleurisy),
- rapid, shallow breathing, and
Related Symptoms & Signs
Other causes of shortness of breath
- Chest Wall & Chest Muscle Diseases
Numerous diseases of muscles and the nervous system can lead to shortness of breath by weakening the body's capacity for opening the lungs up for respiration. Examples of muscle diseases include muscular dystrophy. Nervous system diseases, such as paralysis, can lead to shortness of breath.
- Heart Diseases
Many conditions that affect the heart and its capacity to move blood through the lungs can lead to shortness of breath. These conditions include valve diseases of the heart and others.
- Lung Tissue Diseases
There are a vast number of lung tissue diseases ranging from common and temporary, to uncommon and chronic. These include infections (pneumonia, acute bronchitis from bacteria, viruses, etc.), cancers that have spread to the lung, chemical and radiation toxicity to the lung (including radiation therapy), occupational toxicities (such as minerals from mines), hemosiderosis, fungus infections (coccidiomycosis, blastomycosis, aspergillosis), allergic reactions, drug toxicity, connective tissue diseases, and many others.
- Obstructions to Airflow
Obstruction to airflow can occur anywhere along the passageway that the air we breathe takes from entering the nose and mouth, through the trachea (windpipe in our throats), through the bronchial tubes and tiny airways in the lungs. Sudden blockage of airways is a medical emergency and can be caused by inhaling objects, food particles or fluids.
- Other Causes
Acidosis, such as from salicylate (aspirin) poisoning. Low oxygen environment, such as at high altitudes.
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Is SVT Life-Threatening?
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Multiple Sclerosis (MS)
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Plague (Black Death)
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Polymyositis and Dermatomyositis
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Popcorn Lung (Bronchiolitis Obliterans)
Popcorn lung is a term for the lung disease bronchiolitis obliterans. Popcorn lung is caused by diacetyl and 2,3-pentanedione, chemicals used when manufacturing flavorings for food certain products like popcorn, coffee. E-cigarettes also may cause popcorn lung. Diacetyl and 2,3-pentanedione damage lung tissue that is irreversible. Symptoms of popcorn lung develop gradually over time. The main symptoms are chronic cough and shortness of breath. Other symptoms may include night sweats, weight loss, and fever. Symptoms of severe exposure to diacetyl and 2,3-pentanedione include inflammation of the skin, eyes, nose, and/or throat. Popcorn lung often resembles tobacco-related COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease) so it often is difficult to diagnose. Lung biopsy and surgery may be necessary. There is no cure for popcorn lung. Life expectancy for a person with (bronchiolitis obliterans) depends upon how early the disease was diagnosed and level of exposure to diacetyl and 2,3-pentanedione.
Pregnancy Planning (Tips)
Pregnancy planning is an important step in preparation for starting or expanding a family. Planning for a pregnancy includes taking prenatal vitamins, eating healthy for you and your baby, disease prevention (for both parents and baby) to prevent birth defects and infections, avoiding certain medications that may be harmful to your baby, how much weight gain is healthy exercise safety and pregnancy, travel during pregnancy.
Psoriatic arthritis is a disease that causes skin and joint inflammation. Symptoms and signs include painful, stiff, and swollen joints, tendinitis, and organ inflammation. Treatment involves anti-inflammatory medications and exercise.
Pulmonary edema, or fluid in the lungs, can cause symptoms such as shortness of breath. Learn about causes, diagnosis complications, treatment, and prevention.
Pulmonary Embolism (Blood Clot in the Lung)
A pulmonary embolism (PE) occurs when a piece of a blood clot from deep vein thrombosis (DVT) breaks off and travels to an artery in the lung where it blocks the artery and damages the lung. The most common symptoms of a pulmonary embolism are shortness of breath, chest pain, and a rapid heart rate. Causes of pulmonary embolism include prolonged immobilization, certain medications, smoking, cancer, pregnancy, and surgery. Pulmonary embolism can cause death if not treated promptly.
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Pulmonary hypertension is elevated pressure in the pulmonary arteries that carry blood from the lungs to the heart. The most common symptoms are fatigue and difficulty breathing. If the condition goes undiagnosed, more severe symptoms may occur. As pulmonary hypertension worsens, some people with the condition have difficulty performing any activities that require physical exertion. While there is no cure for pulmonary hypertension, it can be managed and treated with medications and supplemental oxygen to increase blood oxygen levels.
Rheumatoid Arthritis (RA)
Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is an autoimmune disease that causes chronic inflammation of the joints, the tissue around the joints, as well as other organs in the body. Early RA signs and symptoms include anemia, both sides of the body affected (symmetric), depression, fatigue, fever, joint deformity, joint pain, joint redness, joint stiffness, joint swelling, joint tenderness, joint warmth, limping, loss of joint function, loss of joint range of motion, and polyarthritis.
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Sepsis (Blood Poisoning)
Sepsis (blood poisoning) is a potentially deadly infection with signs and symptoms that include elevated heart rate, low or high temperature, rapid breathing and/or a white blood cell count that is too high or too low and has more than 10% band cells. Most cases of sepsis are caused by bacterial infections, and some cases are caused by fungal infections. Treatment requires hospitalization, IV antibiotics, and therapy to treat any organ dysfunction.
Sick Building Syndrome
Multiple chemical sensitivity (MCS) or also referred to as sick building syndrome or environmental illness is the name given by some to a condition in which various symptoms reportedly appear after a person has been exposed to any of a wide range of chemicals. The exposure may occur as a major event, such as a chemical spill, or from long-term contact with low-levels of chemicals, such as in an office with poor ventilation. As a result of exposure, people with MCS (sick building syndrome) develop sensitivity and have reactions to the chemicals even at levels most people can tolerate.
Smoking (How to Quit Smoking)
Smoking is an addiction. More than 430,000 deaths occur each year in the U.S. from smoking related illnesses. Secondhand smoke or "passive smoke" also harm family members, coworkers, and others around smokers. There are a number of techniques available to assist people who want to quit smoking.
A stroke is an interruption of the blood supply to part of the brain caused by either a blood clot (ischemic) or bleeding (hemorrhagic). Symptoms of a stroke may include weakness, numbness, double vision or vision loss, confusion, vertigo, difficulty speaking, or understanding speech. A physical exam, imaging tests, neurological exam, and blood tests may be used to diagnose a stroke. Treatment may include administration of clot-busting drugs, supportive care, and in some instances, neurosurgery. The risk of stroke can be reduced by controlling high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes, and stopping smoking.
Swine Flu (Swine Influenza A [H1N1 and H3N2])
Novel H1N1 influenza A virus infection (swine flu) is an infection that generally is transferred from an infected pig to a human, however there have been reported cases where infection has occured with no contact with infected pigs. Symptoms of swine flu are "flu-like" and include fever, cough, and sore throat. Treatment is generally with the antibiotics oseltamivir (Tamiflu) or zanamivir (Relenza).
Thymoma is an uncommon cancer of the thymus gland. Many thymomas are asymptomatic. When symptoms do occur, they include chest pain, shortness of breath, and cough. Treatment of thymomas includes surgery, and sometimes, radiation and chemotherapy. The prognosis for thymoma is excellent when it is found in the early stages.
Ticks (Tick Bites)
Ticks are known transmitters of disease to humans and animals. Tick-borne diseases include Lyme disease, Rocky Mountain spotted fever, Q fever, tularemia, babesiosis, and Southern tick-associated rash illness. Infected ticks spread disease once they've bitten a host, allowing the pathogens in their saliva and mouth get into the host's skin and blood. Tick bites are typically painless, but the site of the bite may later itch, burn, turn red, and feel painful. Individuals allergic to tick bites may develop a rash, swelling, shortness of breath, numbness, or paralysis. Tick bite treatment involves cleaning and applying antibiotic cream.
Mycobacterium tuberculosis is the bacterium that causes tuberculosis (TB). Symptoms and signs of TB include bloody sputum, fever, cough, weight loss, and chest pain. Treatment depends upon the type of TB infection.
Vasculitis (arteritis, angiitis) is a general term for a group of uncommon diseases which feature inflammation of the blood vessels. Each form of vasculitis has its own characteristic pattern of symptoms. The diagnosis of vasculitis is definitively established after a biopsy of involved tissue demonstrates the pattern of blood vessel inflammation. Treatment is directed toward decreasing the inflammation of the arteries and improving the function of affected organs.
What Is Aortic Dissection?
Aortic dissection is a small tear in the large blood vessel that leads from the heart and supplies blood to the body. Symptoms of aortic dissection include a tearing or ripping pain, nausea, sweating, weakness, shortness of breath, sweating, or fainting. Treatment depends on the type of aortic dissection, and the severity of the tear in the aorta.
What Is Bronchiectasis?
Bronchiectasis has three types: cylindrical bronchiectasis, saccular or varicose bronchiectasis, and cystic bronchiectasis. Causes of bronchiectasis include infection, environmental exposure, drug or alcohol abuse, and alpha-1 antitrypsin (congenital). Symptoms of bronchiectasis include shortness of breath, fatigue, chronic cough, bloody sputum, and wheezing. Treatment for bronchiectasis includes antibiotics and possibly surgery.
What Is Enterovirus (Non-Polio Enterovirus Infection)?
Non-polio enteroviruses cause a variety of infections, including aseptic meningitis, hand, foot, and mouth disease, herpangina, and the common cold. Symptoms and signs of enterovirus infection include hypoxia, eye pain, shortness of breath, chest pain, and fever. Treatment involves supportive care to reduce symptoms.
What Is Idiopathic Pulmonary Fibrosis (IPF)?
Idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis or IPF is a progressive lung disease. There is no known cause of IPF. Symptoms include shortness of breath, cough, fatigue, mild fevers, muscle pain, clubbing fingers, and ankle swelling. Treatment of idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis is directed at managing symptoms. The life expectancy is about 2 to 5 years.
What Is Scoliosis?
Scoliosis causes an abnormal curvature of the spine. When the cause of scoliosis is unknown the disorder is described based on the age when scoliosis develops (infantile, juvenile, or adolescent idiopathic scoliosis). In functional scoliosis, curvature develops due to a problem somewhere else in the body. With neuromuscular scoliosis, there is a problem when the bones of the spine are formed. Treatment typically involves observation, bracing, and surgery and is dependent upon the severity of the curvature.
What Is Valley Fever (Coccidioidomycosis)?
Valley fever (coccidioidomycosis) is a disease caused by the inhalation of the Coccidioides immitis or C. posadasii fungus. Symptoms are flu-like and resolve over two to six weeks. Infection typically requires no treatment, though there are many antifungal drugs to treat valley fever.
What Should I Do After an Unwanted Pregnancy?
There are a variety of options that may help you handle your situation. It might help you to visualize each option and decide how you feel about it. Consider reaching out to trained professionals or close friends if you get overwhelmed.
Examples of Medications for Shortness of Breath
- Advair Diskus, Advair HFA (fluticasone and salmeterol oral inhaler)
- albuterol (Ventolin, Proventil)
- albuterol and ipratropium inhaler (Combivent Respimat)
- beclomethasone dipropionate inhaler (Qvar)
- budesonide (oral inhalation, Pulmicort, Pulmicort Flexhaler)
- cromolyn, Nasalcrom, Gastrocrom (Intal, Opticrom are discontinued)
- fluticasone propionate oral inhaler (Flovent)
- ipratropium bromide inhaler (Atrovent)
- salmeterol (Serevent)
- Seebri Neohaler (glycopyrrolate)
- Side Effects of Vyvgart (efgartigimod alfa-fcab)
- theophylline (Elixophyllin, Theo-24)
- triamcinolone acetonide inhaler, Azmacort
- whole blood
- zafirlukast (Accolate)
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