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 chest pain, pain with inspiration (pleurisy), anxiousness, fatigue, dizziness, fainting, cough, wheezing, bloody sputum, neck pain, and chest injury.
Kasper, D.L., et al., eds. Harrison's Principles of Internal Medicine, 19th Ed. United States: McGraw-Hill Education, 2015.
Pictures, Images, Illustrations & Quizzes
Am I Having a Heart Attack? Symptoms of Heart Disease
Heart attacks symptoms vary greatly for men and women, from anxiety and fatigue to nausea and sweating. Learn the warning signs...
Asthma Attack Signs, Treatments, and Prevention
Look at the anatomy of an asthma attack. See these warning signs and symptoms to avoid an asthma emergency such as a persistent...
Asthma Quiz: Test Your Medical IQ
Asthma is a chronic disease of the airways of the lungs, which can be managed with proper treatment. Triggered by two main...
Asthma Symptoms, Causes, and Medications
What is asthma? Learn about asthma, a chronic inflammation disorder of the bronchiole tubes (airways). Discover information about...
Atrial Fibrillation (A-Fib) Quiz: Test Your Medical IQ
Learn the causes, symptoms, and treatments of the common heart abnormality known as atrial fibrillation (A-fib)....
Atrial Fibrillation: Heart Symptoms, Diagnosis, & Afib Treatment
Atrial fibrillation is the most common type of abnormal heart rhythm. Atrial fibrillation or AF can lead to serious heart...
Bronchitis Symptoms and Treatments
Is bronchitis contagious? Learn about bronchitis, an inflammation of the lining of the lungs. Bronchitis can be aggravated from...
Effects of Secondhand Smoke: Facts
The effects of secondhand smoke can be hazardous to your health. Secondhand smoke can lead to lung cancer, heart disease, and...
Heart Disease Quiz: Test Your Medical IQ
Take our Heart Disease Quiz to get answers and facts about high cholesterol, atherosclerosis prevention, and the causes,...
Heart Disease: Symptoms, Signs, and Causes
What is heart disease (coronary artery disease)? Learn about the causes of heart disease. Symptoms of heart disease include chest...
Managing Severe Allergies at School
Learn how to manage and be prepared for severe allergies at school. Discover how to protect you child from food allergies, insect...
Nasal Allergy Attack: Causes, Triggers, Treatments
What causes allergies? What are your allergy triggers? Discover how allergies work, why our bodies react to them, whether...
Out-of-Control Allergy Symptoms: Treatment Relief in Pictures
Learn 10 signs your allergies are out of control. See these surprising allergy symptoms and find out how to get relief for...
Panic Attacks (Panic Disorder) Quiz: Test Your Mental Health IQ
Could you suffer a panic attack? Take this Panic Attacks Quiz to learn causes, symptoms, and treatments for panic disorder. Use...
Smoking Quiz: How to Quit Smoking
You know it's time you quit smoking. Learn the myths and facts about quitting smoking with the Smoking Quiz. When it comes to...
Causes of Shortness of Breath
12 Congestive Heart Failure Symptoms, Stages, Causes, and Life Expectancy
Congestive heart failure (CHF) refers to a condition in which the heart loses the ability to function properly. Heart disease,...
Adenovirus 14 (Killer Cold Virus)
Adenovirus infection, particularly Ad14, or the "killer cold virus" has been on the increase in the past two years. Symptoms...
An allergy refers to a misguided reaction by our immune system in response to bodily contact with certain foreign substances. ...
ALS (Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis) Symptoms, Causes, Life Expectancy
Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS, Lou Gehrig's disease) is a neurological disease that progresses rapidly. The disease attacks...
Amyloidosis is a group of diseases resulting from abnormal deposition of certain proteins (amyloids) in various bodily areas. The...
Anaphylaxis is a serious allergic reaction that affects a number of different areas of the body at one time, and can be fatal....
Anemia is the condition of having less than the normal number of red blood cells or less than the normal quantity of hemoglobin...
Angina (Symptoms, Causes, Types, Diagnosis, and Treatment)
Angina is chest pain due to inadequate blood supply to the heart. Angina symptoms may include chest tightness, burning,...
Anxiety is a feeling of apprehension and fear characterized by symptoms such as trouble concentrating, headaches, sleep problems,...
Aortic dissection is a small tear in the large blood vessel that leads from the heart and supplies blood to the body. There are...
Aortic Valve Stenosis (Symptoms, Causes, Surgery)
Aortic valve stenosis is an abnormal narrowing of the aortic valve of the heart. The causes of aortic stenosis are wear and tear...
Asthma is a condition in which hyperreactive airways constrict and result in symptoms like wheezing, coughing, and shortness of...
Asthma in Children
Asthma in children manifests with symptoms such as coughing and wheezing. Rates of asthma in children are increasing. Asthma in...
Atrial Fibrillation (AFib) Treatment Drugs
Atrial fibrillation (also called Afib or Afib) is heart rhythm disorder that causes irregular, and often, a rapid heartbeat. The...
Atrial Fibrillation Symptoms (AFib Warning Signs)
Atrial fibrillation or AFib is a type of hear rhythm abnormality. Early warning signs and symptoms of atrial fibrillation...
Atrial Fibrillation vs. Ventricular Fibrillation (AFib vs VFib Symptoms, ECG Strips)
Atrial fibrillation (AF or AFib) is an abnormality in the heart rhythm which involves irregular and often rapid beating of the...
Atrial Flutter vs. Atrial Fibrillation (What Are the Differences?)
Atrial flutter and atrial fibrillation (AFib) are two types of a heart problem called atrial tachycardia. Both of these...
Botulism is an illness caused by a neurotoxin produced by the bacterium Clostridium botulinum. There are three types of botulism:...
Bronchiectasis has three types, 1) cylindrical bronchiectasis, 2) saccular or varicose bronchiectasis, and 3) cystic...
Bronchitis (Acute) Contagoius Symptoms, Causes, Treatment, and Recovery Time
Bronchitis is inflammation of the airways in the lung. Acute bronchitis is is short in duration (10 to 20 days) in comparison...
Dilated Cardiomyopathy is a condition where the heart's ability to pump blood is decreased because the heart's main pumping...
Restrictive cardiomyopathy, the rarest form of cardiomyopathy, is a condition in which the walls of the lower chambers of the...
Chagas Disease (American Trypanosomiasis or Kissing Bug Disease)
Chagas disease is an infection caused by the T. cruzi parasite. Symptoms of Chagas disease include rash, swollen lymph nodes,...
Chest pain is a common complaint by a patient in the ER. Causes of chest pain include broken or bruised ribs, pleurisy,...
Chronic Bronchitis (Symptoms, Causes, Treatment, Remedies)
Chronic bronchitis is a cough that occurs daily with production of sputum that lasts for at least three months, two years in a...
Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS or SEID)
Chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS) or systemic exertion intolerance disease (SEID) is a debilitating and complex disorder...
Colon cancer is a malignancy that arises from the inner lining of the colon. Most, if not all, of these cancers develop from...
COPD vs. Emphysema (Differences Similarities)
COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease) is the term doctors and other health care professionals use to describe a group of...
Diabetes (Type 1 and Type 2)
Diabetes is a chronic condition characterized by high levels of sugar (glucose) in the blood. The two types of diabetes are...
Early Pregnancy Symptoms and Signs
Pregnancy symptoms can vary from woman to woman, and not all women experience the same symptoms. When women do experience...
Emphysema is a COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease) that often occurs with other obstructive pulmonary problems and...
Enterovirus (Non-Polio Enterovirus Infection)
Non-polio enteroviruses cause a variety of infections, including aseptic meningitis, hand, foot, and mouth disease, herpangina,...
Gallbladder Pain (Gall Bladder Pain)
Gallbladder pain (often misspelled "gall bladder") is generally produced by of five problems, biliary colic, cholecystitis,...
Graft Versus Host Disease (GVHD)
Graft versus host disease (GVHD) is a condition that happens when immune cells from transplanted donor tissue attack the...
Hantavirus pulmonary syndrome (HPS) is a disease transmitted by rodents. Symptoms include fever and muscle pain. HPS can be...
A heart attack happens when a blood clot completely obstructs a coronary artery supplying blood to the heart muscle. A heart...
Heart Attack Treatment
A heart attack involves damage or death of part of the heart muscle due to a blood clot. The aim of heart attack treatment is to...
Hereditary Angioedema (HAE)
Hereditary angioedema or HAE is a genetic disease that causes swelling of the skin and tissues beneath it. Symptoms of HAE...
Histoplasmosis (Cave Disease)
Histoplasmosis (cave disease) is a disease caused by a fungus called Histoplasma capsulatum. The symptoms are similar to those of...
Hodgkin's disease is a cancer of the lymphatic system with symptoms that include unexplained, recurring fevers, unexplained...
Hypersensitivity Pneumonitis is an inflammation of the lung caused by small airborne particles such as bacteria, mold, fungi, or...
Hypothyroidism (Symptoms, Diet, Natural and Medical Treatments, Tests)
Hypothyroidism is any state in which thyroid hormone production is below normal. Normally, the rate of thyroid hormone...
Idiopathic Pulmonary Fibrosis (Symptoms, Causes, Treatment, Life Expectancy)
Idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis or IPF is a progressive lung disease. There is no known cause of IPF. Symptoms include shortness...
Internal Bleeding (Symptoms, Signs, Causes, Treatment)
Internal bleeding occurs when an artery or vein is damaged and blood to escapes the circulatory system and collects inside the...
Interstitial Pneumonitis (Interstitial Lung Disease)
Interstitial lung disease refers to a variety of diseased that thicken the tissue between the lungs' air sacks. Viruses,...
Is Pleurisy Contagious?
Pleurisy or pleuritis is an inflammation of the lining around the lungs. Some of the causes of pleurisy include TB, the flu,...
Is Pneumonia Contagious?
Pneumonia is inflammation of the lung usually caused by bacterial or viral infection (rarely, also by fungi) that causes the air...
Is Poison Ivy Contagious?
Poison ivy produces urushiol, an oily chemical, that causes an itchy, painful reddish rash in people who come in contact with the...
Is Whooping Cough (Pertussis) Contagious?
Whooping cough (pertussis) is a highly contagious respiratory infection caused by Bordetella pertussis. Pertussis is...
Kidney Failure (Symptoms, Signs, Stages, Causes, Treatment, and Life Expectancy)
Kidney failure can occur from an acute event or a chronic condition or disease. Prerenal kidney failure is caused by blood loss,...
Lung cancer kills more men and women than any other form of cancer. Eight out of 10 lung cancers are due to tobacco smoke. Lung...
Lupus (Systemic Lupus Erythematosus or SLE)
Systemic lupus erythematosus is a condition characterized by chronic inflammation of body tissues caused by autoimmune disease....
Marfan syndrome is hereditary (genetic) condition affecting connective tissue. A person with Marfan syndrome may exhibit the...
MERS (Middle East Respiratory Syndrome)
MERS-CoV (Middle East respiratory syndrome coronavirus) infection can be spread through respiratory secretions. Symptoms include...
Monkeypox is a viral disease that causes symptoms such as fever, sweating, and a rash with papules and pustules on the face and...
Mucormycosis (zygomycosis) is a fungal infection caused by Zygomycetes. Symptoms and signs include fever, headache, coughing,...
Multiple Sclerosis (MS) Symptoms, Causes, Treatment, Life Expectancy
Multiple sclerosis or MS is an autoimmune disorder in which brain and spinal cord nerve cells become demyelinated. This damage...
Myasthenia gravis, a chronic autoimmune neuromuscular disease. Varying degrees of weakness of the voluntary muscles of the body...
Obesity is the state of being well above one's normal weight. A person has traditionally been considered to be obese if they are...
Occupational asthma is a type of asthma caused by exposure to a substance in the workplace. Symptoms and signs include wheezing,...
There are many types of ovarian cancer, epithelial carcinoma is the most common. Women with a family history of ovarian cancer...
Palpitations (Causes and Symptoms)
Palpitations are uncomfortable sensations of the heart beating hard, rapidly, or irregularly. Some types of palpitations are...
About 1% to 2% of people in the U.S. have a peanut allergy. Symptoms and signs of a peanut allergy include rash, hives, redness,...
Plague (Black Death)
Plague is an infectious disease caused by the bacteria Yersinia pestis. Transmission to humans occurs via fleas that have bitten...
Pneumonia is inflammation of the lungs caused by fungi, bacteria, or viruses. Symptoms and signs include cough, fever, shortness...
Polymyositis is a disease of the muscle featuring inflammation of the muscle fibers. It results in weakness of the muscles which...
Popcorn Lung (Bronchiolitis Obliterans Symptoms, Causes, Life Expectancy
Popcorn lung is a term for the lung disease bronchiolitis obliterans. Popcorn lung is caused by 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...
Psoriatic arthritis is a disease that causes skin and joint inflammation. Symptoms include painful, stiff, and swollen joints,...
Pulmonary edema (swelling or fluid in the lungs) can either be caused by cardiogenic causes (congestive heart failure, heart...
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...
Pulmonary fibrosis is scarring throughout the lungs. Pulmonary fibrosis can be caused by many conditions including chronic...
Pulmonary Hypertension (Symptoms, Treatment Medications, Life Expectancy)
Pulmonary hypertension is an increase pressure in the pulmonary arteries that carry blood from the lungs to the heart. The most...
Rheumatoid Arthritis (RA)
Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is an autoimmune disease that causes chronic inflammation of the joints, the tissue around the joints,...
Sarcoidosis, a disease resulting from chronic inflammation, causes small lumps (granulomas) to develop in a great range of body...
Severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) is a respiratory disease caused by the coronavirus SARS-CoV. Symptoms include fever and...
Scoliosis causes an abnormal curvature of the spine. When the cause of scoliosis is unknown the disorder is described based on...
Sepsis (blood poisoning) is a potentially deadly infection with signs and symptoms that include elevated heart rate, low or high...
Sick Building Syndrome
Multiple chemical sensitivity (MCS) or also referred to as sick building syndrome or environmental illness is the name given by...
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...
Stroke (Signs, Symptoms, Warning Signs)
A stroke is an interruption of the blood supply to part of the brain caused by either a blood clot (ischemic) or bleeding...
Novel H1N1 influenza A virus infection (swine flu) is an infection that generally is transferred from an infected pig to a human,...
Thymoma is an uncommon cancer of the thymus gland. Many thymomas are asymptomatic. When symptoms do occur, they include chest...
Ticks are known transmitters of disease to humans and animals. Tick-borne diseases include Lyme disease, Rocky Mountain spotted...
Mycobacterium tuberculosis is the bacterium that causes tuberculosis (TB). Symptoms and signs of TB include bloody sputum, fever,...
Valley fever (coccidioidomycosis) is a disease caused by the inhalation of the Coccidioides immitis or C. posadasii fungus....
Vasculitis (Symptoms, Causes, Diagnosis, Treatment, Types)
Vasculitis (arteritis, angiitis) is a general term for a group of uncommon diseases which feature inflammation of the blood...
Williams syndrome is a developmental disorder that affects many parts of the body. Signs, symptoms, characteristics and...
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.
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)
- prednisone (Prednisone Intensol, Rayos) Corticosteroid
- salmeterol (Serevent)
- theophylline, Elixophyllin, Theo-24, (Theolair, Uniphyl Theo-Dur, and Slo-Phyllin-discontinued)
- triamcinolone acetonide inhaler, Azmacort
- zafirlukast (Accolate)
Subscribe to MedicineNet's General Health Newsletter