Shortness of breath can be a symptom of several conditions, including serious ones.
If you experience shortness of breath, seek medical care for an accurate diagnosis.
In many cases, over-the-counter remedies can help you breathe better.
In this article, we’ll explore causes of shortness of breath and OTC treatments, prescription options, home remedies, and lifestyle changes that can help.
We’ll also discuss when to see a medical provider for care.
What Is Shortness of Breath (Dyspnea)?
Shortness of breath is medically known as dyspnea.
It happens when you are not able to easily take in air, making it feel hard to breathe.
Dyspnea can be caused by many things, some of them serious and long-term, while others are short-term and not due to an underlying cause.
How a medical provider treats shortness of breath depends on its cause, how long you have had symptoms, and other medical concerns.
Common Causes of Shortness of Breath
Shortness of breath can be caused by many things.
Some common underlying medical conditions that cause shortness of breath include:
- Respiratory and lung conditions: Pneumonia, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), COVID-19, asthma, lung cancer, pneumothorax (collapsed lung), pulmonary embolism (blood clot in lung blood vessels)
- Heart conditions: Congestive heart failure, heart attack (medical emergency)
- Neuromuscular conditions: Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), muscular dystrophy, myotonic dystrophy, myopathies, Guillain Barre syndrome, myasthenia gravis
- Physical conditions: Obesity, pregnancy
Other possible causes of shortness of breath are:
- Intense exercise
- Anxiety, panic attack, or extreme stress
- Going from a hot to cold environment or vice versa
- Altitude sickness
- Thick air pollution or smog
- Being out of shape or having poor fitness
- Injury around the lungs (such as a broken rib)
- Side effects of certain medications (like statins or beta blockers)
- Barotrauma from scuba diving
Shortness of breath that comes on suddenly could be a sign of a medical emergency, so seek immediate care.
In some cases, low oxygen levels may not produce symptoms until it becomes a medical emergency, so seeking treatment as soon as possible is important.
Even if breathing problems are not apparent, anyone who suffers from sudden mental confusion or who develops blue lips, fingertips, toes, or nail beds should receive emergency medical care.
Depending on the cause of breathing problems, some over-the-counter medications can help ease symptoms.
- Expectorants like guaifenesin (Mucinex) can help to clear mucus and phlegm from the lungs and airways by breaking it up, making it easier to breathe in common respiratory infections like bronchitis, influenza, or the common cold.
- Antihistamines like diphenhydramine (Benadryl), cetirizine (Zyrtec), and loratadine (Claritin) can help with breathing problems caused by seasonal allergies.
- Decongestants like pseudoephedrine (Sudafed) may help improve breathing due to common respiratory illnesses by helping to dry up mucus.
If OTC treatments don’t work or if the medical condition causing shortness of breath is more serious, pharmaceutical treatments may help treat dyspnea.
- Antibiotics may be prescribed for bacterial lung infections that affect the ability to breathe. If the infection is serious, you may require intravenous (IV) antibiotics. Common antibiotics used to treat lung infections include azithromycin and levofloxacin.
- Bronchodilators are typically prescribed in inhaler form and work by opening the airways, making it easier to breathe. These may be prescribed for breathing problems related to asthma, COPD, or chronic bronchitis.
- Anticoagulants are blood-thinning medications that may be prescribed for shortness of breath caused by blood clots in the lungs. Common anticoagulants include enoxaparin (Lovenox), warfarin (Coumadin), and heparin.
- Steroids Breathing problems caused by swelling in the airways can be treated with corticosteroids like prednisone. Severe asthma or other serious lung conditions may also be treated with IV steroids like methylprednisolone (SoluMedrol) or inhaled steroids like beclomethasone (Beclovent).
- Diuretics are prescribed for people who have trouble breathing because of fluid in the lungs or excess fluid in the body. Sometimes called “water pills”, these include furosemide (Lasix) and hydrochlorothiazide.
- Anti-anxiety medication can address breathing problems related to panic attacks, anxiety, or stress. These medications are known as anxiolytics and include lorazepam (Ativan) and alprazolam (Xanax). These controlled substances are intended for short-term use.
When shortness of breath is due to a lack of oxygen, oxygen therapy is used as a supportive measure.
Oxygen therapy may be done in a hospitalized setting or at home.
In some cases it is short-term, but oxygen therapy may be needed long-term for lung conditions.
Depending on the cause of your shortness of breath, home remedies can be done to enhance other treatments or may work on their own.
Your medical provider may recommend specific home exercises for breathing support.
Some people feel shortness of breath because they take shallow breaths due to anxiety or poor breathing habits.
You can train your body to breathe more deeply and efficiently, which can improve shortness of breath relating to anxiety, hyperventilation, or stress.
Breathing exercises such as those below are also beneficial for chronic lung conditions.
- Pursed-lip breathing: Relax the neck and shoulder muscles. Slowly inhale through the nose for two counts, keeping the mouth closed. Then purse your lips like you might whistle and exhale gently through the lips for four counts.
- Diaphragmatic breathing: Sitting in a comfortable position, relax the shoulders, neck, and head. Place a hand on the abdomen. Breathe in slowly through the nose, feeling the belly rise under the hand as air fills the lungs. Exhale through the mouth slowly and feel the belly pull inward. Continue for five minutes or until you feel calmer and able to breathe more fully.
When you are tense and stressed, you may take shorter, faster breaths instead of long, deep breaths.
Relaxation techniques that may help include:
- Tripod stance, where you stand leaning slightly forward, arms resting on a table or secure surface. By leaning slightly forward, you take some pressure off of the lungs and open the airways. You can do a modified tripod stance by sitting on a chair, feet flat on the floor and leaning the chest slightly forward. You can rest your chin or head on your hands.
- Supported sleeping can help improve breathing for anxiety, sleep apnea, and COPD. Do this by lying on the back with knees slightly bent and a pillow under them for support. You can also lie on your side and place a pillow between the knees.
While resting in a supported manner, you can also practice other breathing relaxation techniques like meditation, deep breathing, or mindfulness.
These may be effective for stress, anxiety, or chronic conditions that cause shortness of breath.
If you have trouble breathing from nasal congestion or lower respiratory infections, steam inhalation can help open the airways.
Practice steam inhalation in the following ways:
- A hot shower or bath
- Running hot water in a bathroom with the door closed
- Using a steam room at a spa or gym
- Pouring hot water in a bowl and placing a towel over your head while you lean over it
You can also add moisture to the air by using a humidifier, which can alleviate breathing problems worsened by dry air.
Depending on the cause of your shortness of breath, it can be important to avoid triggers that worsen your condition.
These may include allergens like pollen or dust or outdoor exposures that can worsen breathing like air pollution, smoke, or chemicals.
You may also need to avoid intense exercise, being outdoors on hot days, and any other behaviors that can worsen your ability to breathe.
A medical provider can help identify possible triggers that may worsen acute or chronic breathing problems.
Some causes of shortness of breath can be avoided or improved by specific lifestyle changes.
Tobacco smoking or exposure to secondhand smoke is one of the most common causes of lung infections and chronic respiratory conditions.
Ask a medical provider for help if you want to quit.
Stay in shape
Excess abdominal fat and body weight can make it harder to breathe.
At least 150 minutes of moderate exercise each week is recommended to maintain healthy fitness levels.
Eat a diet that is nutritionally balanced with plenty of vegetables, fruits, fiber, and low-fat meat and dairy, and avoid excess salt.
Dietary modifications can help lead to weight loss and reduce inflammation.
Other lifestyle changes
- Avoid or reduce exposure to pollutants and environmental toxins
- Stay indoors during peak allergy seasons or wear a filtering mask
- Avoid foods that may lead to anaphylactic or allergic reactions
- Avoid overexertion
- Use caution with activity at high altitudes
- Get flu, COVID-19, and other vaccines to prevent infections
- Practice self-care and manage stress levels
When to See a Medical Provider
Seek emergency medical care or call 911 if you or someone you are with:
- Has sudden breathing problems
- Feels like something is struck in the throat
- Cannot improve breathing with breathing exercises or medications
- Has chest pain
- Has blue lips or nail beds
- Experiences sudden confusion
See a medical provider if you experience shortness of breath that happens frequently but resolves on its own.
Other signs that you should see a healthcare provider include:
- Waking up at night feeling like you are gasping for air
- Struggle to breathe while lying down
- Get out of breath easily with little exertion
Do not avoid seeing a medical provider if you think that your breathing problems are due to anxiety or smoking.
They can offer solutions to improve quality of life and, importantly, rule out any unknown underlying problems that could be contributing to symptoms.
How K Health Can Help
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Frequently Asked Questions
K Health has strict sourcing guidelines and relies on peer-reviewed studies, academic research institutions, and medical associations. We avoid using tertiary references.
How to breathe when you are short of breath. (2022).
Dyspnea on exertion. (2022).
An official American Thoracic Society Statement: Update on the mechanisms, assessment, and management of dyspnea. (2011).
Cigarette Smoking and Dyspnea Perception. (2004).
The effect of obesity on lung function. (2018).