What Does Shortness of Breath Feel Like?

By Chris Bodle, MD
Medically reviewed checkmarkMedically reviewed
April 8, 2020

If you are feeling like you can’t catch your breath or you can’t breathe deeply enough to fill your lungs with air, you may be experiencing dyspnea, an uncomfortable but common sensation called “shortness of breath.”

If you’re experiencing dyspnea, your symptoms might include tightness in your chest, breathlessness, feeling “hungry for air,” or feeling that you’re being suffocated. Shortness of breath can be a scary sensation, but it is not always cause for concern.

Healthy people who are vigorously exercising, are in high-altitude environments, or are exposed to extreme temperatures can develop short-term dyspnea as their body acclimates to their environment. Shortness of breath that occurs outside of those circumstances, or presents more severely and rapidly, or persists for a long period of time may indicate an underlying health condition that requires medical attention.

What Is Shortness of Breath (Dyspnea)?

Medical professionals describe dyspnea as difficult or labored breathing. When your heart or lungs cannot take in oxygen, move it to your organs, or expel carbon monoxide correctly, you can experience a cluster of sensations, including shortness of breath.

Healthy people can experience short-term dyspnea in a few specific circumstances:

  • When you physically exert yourself, particularly during strenuous exercise
  • When you are in high-altitude, low-oxygen environments
  • When you are exposed to extreme changes in temperature
  • When you experience significant anxiety or emotional stress

Outside of those circumstances, shortness of breath can indicate an underlying medical condition that may require a doctor’s attention. If you experience dyspnea that is sudden or unexplainable, that comes on after you engage in activities that haven’t posed a challenge for you in the past, or is lasting for days, you should chat with a doctor.

If you are experiencing severe shortness of breath that directly impacts your ability to function, call 911 or have someone drive you to the emergency room. Shortness of breath and chest pain, fainting, a change in mental alertness, swelling of the ankles and hands, or a blue tint to the lips and nails can indicate an acute condition that requires immediate medical attention.

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Associated Symptoms of Dyspnea

Shortness of breath symptoms often vary based on your personal experience and the underlying reason for your condition. If you have shortness of breath, you may describe feeling like you can’t catch your breath or can’t take deep breaths, and that you feel like you’re suffocating. You may also experience the following symptoms:

Shortness of Breath Causes

There are a number of reasons you might develop dyspnea. Shortness of breath occurs in healthy people when they engage in specific activities like strenuous physical exercise or because of external conditions, like high altitudes or extreme temperatures.

Outside of those circumstances, shortness of breath is usually a signal that there is an underlying medical issue affecting your lungs and heart. Some of these conditions are common and require a short-term treatment plan. Others are more serious and need longer-term management. Your shortness of breath may be caused by:

Shortness of Breath Diagnosis

If your shortness of breath is sudden, unexplainable, or keeps you from your regular activities, it’s important to talk to a doctor to rule out any underlying conditions.

Your doctor will ask you a series of questions and complete a physical exam with vital signs. They will ask you for your family medical history and may order chest x-rays, a lung function test, a blood test, or an electrocardiography (EKG) test to get a sense of your overall lung and heart health.

Before suggesting any shortness of breath treatment options, your doctor may teach you how to use a dyspnea scale, called a Rating of Perceived Dyspnea (RPD), to describe when and where you feel short of breath most often. Although every individual is different, understanding whether your dyspnea is linked to specific activities or other symptoms can help your doctor better understand and diagnose your condition.

  • Shortness of breath after eating: Shortness of breath or wheezing after eating can indicate heartburn, aspiration of food contents into the lungs, or in more severe cases, anaphylaxis, a dangerous reaction to a food allergy.
  • Shortness of breath and tiredness: Shortness of breath and fatigue can indicate a wide variety of conditions, from anemia to heart attack.
  • Shortness of breath when lying down: Some obese patients report difficulty breathing when lying down, because excess weight can put pressure on the lungs. This can also occur with heart failure or other conditions that cause fluid retention.
  • Shortness of breath at night: Struggling to breathe at night, particularly when sleeping, may indicate sleep apnea or other respiratory condition.
  • Shortness of breath when talking: Difficulty breathing while talking may indicate asthma, poor nutrition, lack of exercise, a blocked airway, or a severe allergic reaction (anaphylaxis), depending on the circumstances.
  • Shortness of breath when walking: Shortness of breath during simple exercises may be a sign of excess weight, poor nutrition, or more serious underlying conditions like chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) or heart disease.
  • Shortness of breath while anxious: Dyspnea can be a symptom of anxiety, and may happen more often if you have a history of stress, panic attacks, or panic disorders.
  • Shortness of breath during pregnancy: Women in the early stages of pregnancy experience a normal increase in progesterone, a hormone that expands their lung capacity and causes them to breathe more often, which may cause the sensation of chronic shortness of breath.
  • Shortness of breath and dizziness: Dyspnea and dizziness can indicate a range of health conditions including anemia, anxiety, or, at its most extreme, a heart attack.
  • Shortness of breath and cough: Shortness of breath and a cough indicate a variety of conditions ranging from mild to severe, including panic attacks, acute bronchitis, pneumonia, influenza, lung cancer, and coronavirus.

If you experience shortness of breath accompanied by neck or chest pain, fainting, a change in mental alertness, or your symptoms are sudden, severe, or unexplainable, you could be suffering from a heart attack or another acute condition and should seek medical treatment immediately.

Dyspnea Treatment

Dyspnea treatment options vary widely and are based on your individual diagnosis. If your shortness of breath is caused by a weight-related condition, your doctor may suggest changes to your diet and exercise routine. If it’s related to a pulmonary (lung) or cardiac (heart) condition, your doctor may prescribe medication or recommend that you seek out a specialist to help you manage your symptoms for the long-term.

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Dyspnea Prevention

If you suffer from chronic shortness of breath, there are home treatments that can help support lung function and temporarily alleviate discomfort. It’s important to remember that the only way to manage chronic dyspnea is to treat the underlying condition causing your symptoms. It is also good to prioritize your overall health by:

  • Quitting smoking and avoiding being exposed to pollutants
  • Eating a varied diet of nutritious, whole and unprocessed foods
  • Engaging in regular, moderate exercise and taking appropriate measures to lose excess weight
  • Getting enough sleep
  • Visiting your doctor for regular physical exams and take medications as prescribed

If you are otherwise healthy and tend to feel short of breath when you are in high altitudes, when you vigorously exercise, or when you are in extremely cold or hot climates, avoiding those circumstances will help prevent the sensations associated with dyspnea.

Risk Factors and Complications

Because dyspnea is a symptom of a wide variety of ailments, there are a number of factors that can put you at risk for developing the condition, including:

  • A history of asthma, lung diseases, or lung cancer
  • A history of anxiety, panic attacks, and panic disorders
  • A history of smoking
  • Obesity or lack of exercise
  • Exposure to low-oxygen, high altitudes, extreme temperatures or air pollutants
  • A history of allergic reaction and cardiac conditions

When to See a Doctor

If you experience shortness of breath during activities that haven’t caused you breathing challenges in the past, or find that your symptoms are getting in the way of your everyday life or are accompanied by a dry cough and fever, you should contact your doctor.

If you experience shortness of breath that severely impacts your ability to function, or is accompanied by chest pain, neck pain, a change in your mental alertness, fainting, swelling of your ankles or hands, or a bluish tint to your lips or nails, you may be suffering from a heart attack or another acute condition. Call 911 or have someone drive you to the nearest emergency room immediately.

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K Health articles are all written and reviewed by MDs, PhDs, NPs, or PharmDs and are for informational purposes only. This information does not constitute and should not be relied on for professional medical advice. Always talk to your doctor about the risks and benefits of any treatment.

Chris Bodle, MD

Dr. Bodle is a board certified emergency medicine physician. He received his medical degree from Indiana University School of Medicine, and completed his residency in emergency medicine at Emory University. In addition to K Health, he currently works as an Emergency Medicine physician in an Urban, Level 1 Trauma Center in the south east.

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