What Tests Should Be Done for Shortness of Breath
Tests that may be done for shortness of breath include a chest X-ray, blood oxygen level test, electrocardiography, lung function test, and blood tests

Shortness of breath or dyspnea is a common symptom. After your doctor asks about your medical history and performs a physical exam, the following tests may be ordered to assess the cause and determine treatment:

  • Chest X-ray: Chest X-rays help determine whether the cause is pneumonia or other lung or heart problems.
  • Blood oxygen level test: Also called pulse oximetry, the test helps assess oxygen levels in the blood.
  • Electrocardiography: Small electrodes are attached to the chest to measure electrical impulses of the heart and determine blood flow to the heart.
  • Lung function test: This test assesses lung capacity and airflow to check how well the lungs are functioning. 
  • Blood tests: Blood tests help determine whether conditions such as anemia, infections, or heart diseases are causing the symptoms.

Some important aspects to consider during clinical assessment include:

  • Smoking history
  • Body mass index
  • Pulse and respiratory rate
  • Blood pressure
  • Swelling over the feet, legs or other parts of the body
  • Peak expiratory flow rate

When to see a doctor for shortness of breath

Shortness of breath is usually mild and temporary. However, sometimes it indicates an underlying chronic condition that can cause health complications. In such cases, early diagnosis is important. 

Consult a doctor for shortness of breath if the condition:

  • Interferes with daily activities
  • Worsens or does not go away
  • Occurs even when at rest
  • Is accompanied by fever, chest pain, excessive sweating, or cough
  • Leads to bluish or grayish discoloration of the skin, nails, or lips

What are signs of shortness of breath?

Symptoms that may accompany shortness of breath include:

What causes shortness of breath?

Shortness of breath has many causes, depending on whether it is acute or chronic. Acute dyspnea occurs over hours or days, whereas chronic dyspnea occurs over weeks or months.

Acute causes:

Chronic causes:

What are triggers and risk factors for shortness of breath?

Triggers such as environmental pollutants can play a role in shortness of breath. Exposure to the following can trigger frequent episodes of dyspnea:

  • Chemicals
  • Dust
  • Tobacco smoke
  • Fumes
  • Allergens such as mold or pollen

People who are at a higher risk of dyspnea include:

  • Pregnant women: Pregnancy tends to alter the breathing capacity of women, causing about 20% decrease in lung volume.
  • Elderly and those with chronic diseases: Older people and people with chronic health conditions or at advanced stages of diseases are at a higher risk of developing the symptom.
  • Infants: Pediatric emergencies such as upper respiratory system conditions can lead to dyspnea. Inflammation of the epiglottis, inhaling foreign objects, and croup are also common causes of shortness of breath in infants.

How is shortness of breath treated?

Treatment of shortness of breath depends on the cause of the condition. Shortness of breath can be treated at home in some cases. However, because the condition can cause serious complications such as organ damage and cognitive impairment if not treated properly, it is important to consult a medical professional for proper diagnosis and treatment.

Medical treatment

In serious cases, your doctor may recommend:

Home remedies

Home remedies can help alleviate symptoms if the condition is not caused by a medical emergency:

  • Pursed lip breathing: This breathing technique helps control shortness of breath caused by chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), hyperventilation, or panic attacks. Relax your shoulders and neck muscles and breathe in through your nose. Hold your breath for 2 seconds. Purse your lips as if you are about to whistle and then exhale slowly.
  • Diaphragmatic breathing: Diaphragmatic breathing can help you manage shortness of breath caused by COPD. Sit on a chair with your shoulders, neck, and head muscles completely relaxed. Place a hand on your belly and inhale slowly through your nose. Tighten your stomach muscles and exhale through pursed lips. Continue for 5 minutes.
  • Sitting position: Sitting forward in certain positions help relax your body and make breathing easier by creating more space in the chest cavity. Sit on a chair and lean your chest forward slightly. Relax your neck and shoulder muscles and inhale and exhale slowly. Supporting yourself with a pillow can make the breathing process more comfortable.
  • Sleeping position: Lay on your side with a pillow between your legs and keep your head elevated. This position helps relax the airways, making breathing easier.

Lifestyle changes

Lifestyle changes can help you manage symptoms of dyspnea and prevent them from recurring: 

  • Eat a balanced diet
  • Maintain a healthy weight
  • Quit smoking and avoid passive smoke
  • Avoid environmental triggers
  • Build endurance for intense workout sessions
  • Make adjustment when traveling to high altitude regions

Health Solutions From Our Sponsors

Medically Reviewed on 2/23/2022
Image Source: iStock Images