Shortness of breath is the uncomfortable, tight-chested sensation of not being able to take a deep breath or get enough air into your lungs. Physicians call this frightening feeling dyspnea, and it can come on suddenly (acute dyspnea) or develop slowly, over time (chronic dyspnea).
At Fivestar Pulmonary Associates in Allen and McKinney, Texas, our seasoned team of lung and critical care experts treats new, unexplained, or persistent shortness of breath with the urgency it demands. Dyspnea can be a sign of many different health problems, including serious heart and lung conditions.
Here, Dr. Anthony Nebor, Dr. Asif Najmuddin, and Dr. Deepthi Gandhiraj discuss the possible causes of shortness of breath and explain when it calls for a prompt evaluation — and when it may require emergency care.
Even perfectly healthy people know what it’s like to experience momentary shortness of breath during vigorous exercise, in extreme heat, at high altitudes, or when air quality is bad. In such cases, a simple situational change is all it takes to restore normal breathing and fill your lungs with oxygen.
But there’s nothing normal about shortness of breath that arbitrarily appears when you’re walking, going up the stairs, or even just sitting still. Unexplained shortness of breath can be scary — especially when it makes your chest uncomfortably tight or leaves you feeling as though you’re suffocating.
If your breathing has suddenly become labored and difficult for no obvious reason, or if you’ve been experiencing shortness of breath and it’s getting worse over time, a prompt evaluation is of the utmost importance.
Shortness of breath is not a side effect of the aging process. When it isn’t clearly caused by a temporary situation (heat, altitude, pollution) or a known problem like anxiety, deconditioning, or obesity, it may be a sign of a more serious problem.
Most dyspnea cases stem from a heart or lung condition. Your heart and lungs work together to transport oxygen to — and remove carbon dioxide from — your body cells, tissues, and organs. Problems with either of these processes can affect your breathing.
Shortness of breath that comes on suddenly (acute dyspnea) has a relatively limited number of potential causes, including:
Given that sudden breathing difficulties can be a sign of a life-threatening medical condition, seek immediate emergency help if it happens to you.
Shortness of breath that emerges slowly — often gradually worsening over weeks or months — is called chronic dyspnea. Persistent and progressive shortness of breath may be a sign of:
Persistent dyspnea can also be a sign of an ongoing circulatory issue like anemia or low blood pressure (hypotension). Given its wide range of potential underlying causes, having a prompt evaluation is the only way to get to the bottom of chronic shortness of breath.
Sudden dyspnea is especially concerning when it’s accompanied by chest or shoulder pain, nausea, dizziness, or fainting. In all such cases, it’s vital to seek prompt emergency care.
Chronic shortness of breath affects some people during or after physical activity, while others feel it mostly when they’re resting or lying down. You know your own body best — if you’ve been experiencing unexplained breathing changes, make an appointment with your primary care physician right away.
They may refer you to our team at Fivestar Pulmonary Associates if they suspect your problem is related to a chronic lung condition like asthma, COPD, or lung cancer. They may refer you to a cardiologist if they detect an abnormal heart rhythm, or if your symptoms wake you up at night or make it impossible to lie flat on your back.
To investigate shortness of breath, we begin with a list of detailed questions and a physical exam. Depending on the specifics of your case, we may measure your blood oxygen levels, take chest X-rays, conduct pulmonary function testing, or perform echocardiogram testing to assess your heart function.
If you’re dealing with shortness of breath, Fivestar Pulmonary Associates can help. Schedule a visit today by calling our location most convenient to you or requesting an appointment online.