Dyspnea - Breathing problems

COPD

Dyspnea is the uncomfortable sensation that you are not receiving enough air or feel short of breath. This symptom is fairly common and is associated with a number of conditions, including COPD, asthma, congestive heart failure, and even psychological issues such as anxiety. Treatment for dyspnea depends on the underlying cause.

When you have trouble breathing, it is a very frightening and uncomfortable experience. However, this feeling, called dyspnea, is not uncommon. Dyspnea has also been referred to as “an uncomfortable abnormal awareness of breathing.”1 It comprises not just a singular symptom but a few, including a shortness of breath, chest tightness, and/or “air hunger,” which refers to the feeling of not obtaining enough oxygen in the lungs.

Dyspnea, which is not a disease but a symptom, is a normal experience after a person has heavily exerted himself due to strenuous exercise or a similar activity. However, when it is recurring and brought on not by any outside physical exertion, it can become indicative of an underlying disease or condition. Of patients admitted to hospitals, up to 50% reported dyspnea; a quarter of those in ambulatory care reported the symptom.2

The most common physical disorders, diseases, or conditions that can cause dyspnea include chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), which comprises chronic bronchitis and emphysema, both respiratory diseases; asthma, a respiratory disease of which dyspnea is a major symptom; pulmonary fibrosis, which occurs when the tissue in the lungs becomes scarred and damaged; congestive heart failure; pulmonary embolism, which occurs when one of more arteries in the lungs becomes blocked; pneumothorax, which is another term for a collapsed lung; and pneumonia. Panic and anxiety disorders can also cause dyspnea.34 Sometimes, a person can report dyspnea but have no physical, measured symptoms.

Treating dyspnea is difficult, as it is a subjective symptom as well as a symptom of many diseases. But to relieve the symptom of dyspnea, there are a few routes people who suffer from it can take. Smoking, of course, damages the lungs and contributes to this sensation; therefore, to ease the symptoms, it is important to try to quit smoking and avoid places where there is secondhand smoke or other types of dust, fumes, or air pollution. Staying hydrated and using a humidifier or a vaporizer may also be beneficial to sufferers. Oxygen therapy has also been used as a treatment plan for those who suffer from severe dyspnea, especially when it is due to a respiratory disease.

For some, dyspnea interferes heavily with activities of daily living. When the symptom is this severe, it is important to talk with a doctor immediately to rule out any major diseases or disorders that could be causing the dyspnea.

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Glossary

alveolus air sac where gas exchange takes place.
angina chest pain.
aorta blood vessel that delivers oxygen-rich blood from the left ventricle to the body; it is the largest blood vessel in the body.
apex top portion of the upper lobes of the lungs.
atrium one of the two receiving chambers of the heart.
base bottom portion of lower lobes, located just above the diaphragm.
blood pressure pressure of blood against the walls of a blood vessel or heart chamber.
bronchiolitis inflammation that involves the bronchioles (small airways).
bronchoscopy the examination of the bronchi (the main airways of the lungs) using a flexible tube (bronchoscope). Bronchoscopy helps to evaluate and diagnose lung problems, assess blockages, obtain samples of tissue and/or fluid, and/or to help remove a foreign body.
bronchus large airways; lung divides into right and left bronchi.
cardiac output total amount of blood being pumped by the heart over a particular period of time.
catheter thin, flexible medical tube; one use is to insert it into a blood vessel to measure blood pressure.
constrict tighten; narrow.
cyanosis bluish color in the skin because of insufficient oxygen.
diaphragm primary muscle used for respiration, located just below the lung bases.
diastolic pressure lowest pressure to which blood pressure falls between contractions of the ventricles.
dilate relax; expand.
dyspnea sensation of difficulty in breathing.
edema swelling due to the buildup of fluid.
endothelial cells the delicate lining, only one cell thick, of the organs of circulation.
expiration exhaling; giving off carbon dioxide.
heartbeat one complete contraction of the heart.
hyperactive describes a situation in which a body tissue is especially likely to have an exaggerated reaction to a particular situation.
hypertension abnormally high blood pressure.
hypotension abnormally low blood pressure.
inspiration inhaling; taking in oxygen.
lobectomy removal of an entire lobe of the lung.
lung volume the amount of air the lungs hold.
mean blood pressure average blood pressure, taking account of the rise and fall that occurs with each heartbeat. It is often estimated by multiplying the diastolic pressure by two, adding the systolic pressure, and then dividing this sum by three.
palpitation sensation of rapid heartbeats.
perfusion flow.
pleura membrane that covers the outside of the lung.
pneumonectomy removal of an entire lung.
pulmonary artery blood vessel delivering oxygen-poor blood from the right ventricle to the lungs.
pulmonary hypertension abnormally high blood pressure in the arteries of the lungs.
smooth muscle muscle that performs automatic tasks, such as constricting blood vessels.
spirogram record of the amounts of air being moved in and out of the lungs.
syncope fainting; temporary loss of consciousness.
systemic relating to a process that affects the body generally; in this instance, the way in which blood is supplied through the aorta to all body organs except the lungs.
systolic pressure the highest pressure to which blood pressure rises with the contraction of the ventricles.
vasodilator agent that widens blood vessels.
ventilation movement of air (gases) in and out of the lungs.
ventricle one of the two pumping chambers of the heart; right ventricle receives oxygen-poor blood from the right atrium and pumps it to the lungs through the pulmonary artery; left ventricle receives oxygen-rich blood from the left atrium and pumps it to the body through the aorta.