- Diagnostic Tests
- When to See a Doctor
- Triggers & Risk Factors
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:
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:
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.
- Extreme temperatures
- Chest injury
- Heart attack
- Pulmonary embolism (blood clotting in one or more arteries in the lungs)
- Side effect of a medications (such as statins or beta-blockers)
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:
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.
In serious cases, your doctor may recommend:
- Oxygen therapy: Receiving extra oxygen through the nostrils to ease breathing
- Medications: Drugs called bronchodilators can help relax the airways and alleviate symptoms of asthma and COPD
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 can help you manage symptoms of dyspnea and prevent them from recurring:
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