Causes of shortness of breath

Many causes contribute to shortness of breath, the most common being underlying respiratory or heart problems. This article provides a look at shortness of breath.


Shortness of breath is also known as dyspnoea and is defined as air hunger, or the sensation of having the urge to breathe caused by a lack of oxygen in the blood. Shortness of breath that is caused by exercise or strenuous activity is relatively normal and is not associated with pathology in healthy individuals. It is when shortness of breath is indicative of a serious, underlying disease that it becomes an issue of significance.


There are a number of risk factors associated with the development of shortness of breath, with smoking the most common factor. Other risk factors include second hand or passive smoke, occupational and environmental exposure and allergies. A genetic history of hereditary heart disease or hereditary lung disease such as cystic fibrosis can also expose someone to episodes of shortness of breath.


Shortness of breath is a common complaint and is often associated with heart or lung problems that are either acute (sudden) or chronic (long-term) in nature. For example, sudden shortness of breath in a reasonably healthy individual may be a sign of pnuemothorax (air between the lungs and chest wall), which is a medical emergency. In a patient who has recently had surgery, sudden shortness of breath may indicate pulmonary embolism (a mass of undissolved matter that blocks the vessels in the lungs), which can also be an emergency.

The inability to breathe comfortably while sitting up may be seen in people who have chronic heart disease or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), while complaints of sudden shortness of breath may be associated with a heart attack or congestive heart failure.

Dyspnoea that is accompanied by wheezing is often seen in emphysema, chronic bronchitis or asthma. Moreover, shortness of breath that is noisy may denote an airway obstruction by a tumour or a foreign body. Dyspnoea can also be caused by anaemia, or haemoglobin deficiency, as the body tries to compensate for not having enough oxygen.

Whatever the reason that is producing the shortness of breath it must be determined in order to treat the underlying cause.

Identification of shortness of breath

More often than not people who experience shortness of breath tend to ignore it, thinking that it will eventually go away. However, if this is ignored then it can lead to complications including hospitalisation or even death. It is important that if you are experiencing shortness of breath you seek medical attention. Other symptoms that may accompany shortness of breath include flaring nostrils, sweating, and anxiety.

Shortness of breath should be evaluated by a Doctor. Relief of symptoms, in severe cases, may also be achieved by the administration of oxygen or other medication, depending upon its cause. To conclude, shortness of breath is one of the most common symptoms of respiratory or heart disease and is often accompanied by other signs and symptoms. It is imperative that early recognition and treatment for dyspnoea are paramount to overcome the problem of shortness of breath.