Dyspnea or Shortness of Breath: Symptoms, Causes and Treatment

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." 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.

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. 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.

The information on this page is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. For more information about dyspnea, talk to your doctor or primary care provider.

Page last updated: August 1, 2023


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