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What Is Dyspnea?

Dyspnea is a specialized medical terminology used for shortness of breath in individuals who cannot get enough air, resulting in air hunger, chest tightness, or an inability to breathe properly.

Shortness of breath is typically a common symptom of lung and cardiovascular disorders but may also stem from other underlying conditions such as allergies, anxiety, and asthma. Having a cold or undertaking arduous physical exercise can also lead to dyspnea or feelings of breathlessness.

High-Risk Groups for Dyspnea

Particular groups may be at a higher risk of developing dyspnea than others, including the following:

Older Adults

Dyspnea is relatively more common among older adults. A study found that 1 in every 5 older adults experience symptoms of dyspnea when walking uphill or climbing stairs.

Pregnant Women

Mild dyspnea is quite common in pregnancy, primarily because pregnancy can affect one's breathing capacity.


Acute dyspnea is quite common in children since they are more susceptible to upper respiratory diseases.

What are the Symptoms of Dyspnea?

There can be various causes of dyspnea, including spending time in high altitudes, overexertion, or having an underlying medical condition. Some of the most common signs and symptoms of dyspnea are as follows:

  • Wheezing

  • Shortness of breath, typically after exertion or physical activity

  • Feelings of being suffocated or smothered

  • Labored breathing

  • Coughing

  • Tightness in the chest

  • Heart palpitations

  • Shallow or rapid breathing

Dyspnea symptoms that appear suddenly or severely may hint at a serious underlying medical condition.

What are the Risk Factors for Dyspnea?

Shortness of breath is quite common during exertion or arduous physical activity, even in healthy individuals. However, if it occurs during unexpected situations, such as when an individual is at rest, it may require immediate medical attention for a proper diagnosis. People with dyspnea generally also have any of the following medical conditions:

  • Obesity

  • Cardiovascular disorders

  • Reflux

  • Pneumonia or respiratory infections

  • Allergies

  • Emphysema or chronic bronchitis

  • Asthma

What are the Causes of Dyspnea?

Although dyspnea typically hints at an underlying medical condition, it may not always be congruent with an individual's health. It is possible to experience an episode of dyspnea after undergoing significant temperature changes, traveling to a region with a high latitude, or undertaking intense physical exercise.

However, that does not completely rule out the other more serious causes. Typically, dyspnea occurs due to inactivity, with mild exercise improving symptoms. However, chronic dyspnea may hint at other severe causes.

The primary causes of acute dyspnea may be as follows:

  • Anemia

  • Asthma

  • Anxiety

  • Allergic reactions

  • Pneumonia

  • Hypotension (low blood pressure)

  • Exposure to dangerous levels of carbon monoxide

  • Obstruction of airways due to foreign objects

  • Hiatal hernia

  • Cardiovascular complications

  • Collapsed lung

  • Heart failure

  • Acute onset, such as iron deficiency

  • Pulmonary embolism (formation of a blood clot in an artery that carries blood to the lungs)

  • Multiple sclerosis

Acute dyspnea turns into chronic dyspnea if an individual experiences shortness of breath for over a month. Chronic dyspnea is common in people with terminal illnesses. The primary causes of chronic dyspnea may be as follows:

  • Interstitial pulmonary fibrosis (the primary cause of lung tissue scarring)

  • Asthma

  • Obesity

  • Cardiovascular problems such as cardiomyopathy or pericarditis

  • Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)

How is Dyspnea Diagnosed?

Dyspnea is typically diagnosed through an elaborate physical examination of the patient, along with a complete evaluation of the way they describe their symptoms. For this, the patient needs to thoroughly explain how, when, and where their dyspnea attacks began, how frequently they occur, how long they last, and the extent of their severity.

However, a medical professional may need to prescribe additional diagnostic tests to fully understand a patient's medical situation, which may include the following:

X-Ray Scans

X-Ray scans help medical professionals gauge the overall health of an individual's lungs, heart, and related organs and organ systems.


Electrocardiograms are beneficial in showing possible signs of heart attack or any other electrical problems in the heart.

Computerized Tomography Scans (CT scans)

CT scans provide a more intricate and detailed image of the body organs, illuminating aspects left untouched by X-ray scans.

Spirometry Tests

Spirometry tests calculate a patient's lung capacity and measure the airflow, helping locate the extent and type of breathing problems an individual may suffer from.

What is the Treatment for Dyspnea?

Dyspnea is typically treated by diagnosing and treating the underlying medical condition causing it. For instance, if an individual suffers from pleural effusion leading to dyspnea, a medical professional can relieve symptoms by draining the fluid inside the chest. Treating dyspnea may require surgical intervention or medication, depending on the underlying cause.

Depending upon the underlying cause, a medical professional may prescribe any of the following medications to treat dyspnea:

  • Pain medications

  • Bronchodilators to open airways

  • Steroids to reduce swelling

How to Prevent the Development of Dyspnea

Particular health measures can help individuals with dyspnea take control of their overall health and allow themselves more breathing room. Such measures include the following:

  • Avoiding environmental triggers such as wood smoke and chemical fumes.

  • Quitting smoking.

  • Steering clear of second-hand smoke wherever possible.

  • Giving yourself time to adjust to higher altitudes.

  • Exercising regularly to improve and strengthen the respiratory and cardiovascular systems.

When to See a Doctor for Dyspnea

Generally speaking, dyspnea is a medical emergency that requires immediate medical assistance, especially if the patient experiences any of the following:

  • Nausea

  • Chest pain

  • Loss of ability to function

  • Sudden onset of severe dyspnea symptoms

American-board-certified and fellowship-trained professionals at SleepRx offer highly specialized healthcare facilities, including sleep studies, polysomnography, and sleep apnea tests. You can contact a sleep apnea specialist of your choice to book an online sleep apnea test or at-home sleep study right from the comfort of your home. Head to SleepRx to learn more about sleep study costs and when to get tested for sleep apnea and other sleep-related ailments.

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