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Causes of shortness of breath

woman holding chest in pain
Experiencing shortness of breath can be scary. Find out the different causes of shortness of breath, what it can feel like and how to help stop it.

Experiencing shortness of breath can be scary. In some cases, having trouble breathing can be unpleasant but not a sign of anything serious. However, it could also be a sign that you need to seek medical treatment.

If you’re not sure, we’ve provided some helpful information below. But if you are worried, it’s usually best to talk to your doctor to get to the bottom of your symptoms.1

It’s worth noting here that shortness of breath may be a symptom of the COVID-19 coronavirus illness. If you are experiencing other symptoms, like a cough, loss of taste or smell and a fever, follow your local guidelines to understand what you need to do next.

What does shortness of breath feel like?

There is a range of breathing difficulties you might experience, and they all feel slightly different. It’s useful to know the difference so that you can better identify what’s happening.

Shortness of breath usually feels like a winded sensation, or like you are unable to take a full breath. The feeling is very similar to how you might feel after doing exercise or climbing a big flight of steps. However, it can happen at any time (even at rest).2

Generally, shortness of breath feels like you can’t get enough air into your lungs. You might feel like you have to breathe more quickly too.3

Different causes of shortness of breath

There could be a lot of causes of shortness of breath and finding out the reason why you feel breathless may help you find strategies to manage the symptom. Some of the causes are more serious than others, so always speak to your doctor if you are worried. In an urgent situation, always phone your local emergency services.

Some causes may include4:

  • A cold or chest infection
  • Being overweight
  • Smoking
  • A panic attack or anxiety
  • Allergies
  • Asthma
  • Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)
  • Other respiratory health conditions

It’s usually best not to try and self-diagnose when you are experiencing shortness of breath. Your doctor will be able to investigate your symptoms further and find the best treatment plan for you.

How to help stop shortness of breath

Any treatment for shortness of breath depends on the underlying cause. That’s why it’s essential to get to the bottom of your symptoms to help improve your breathing.

However, there are some things you can do at home to help stop shortness of breath. These may include5:

  • Breathing exercises, like deep breathing or pursed-lip breathing
  • Lying down with your head supported
  • Leaning forward
  • Steaming
  • Losing weight
  • Improving fitness
  • Stopping smoking
  • Avoid allergens
  • Psychological therapy or counselling

When to see a doctor about the shortness of breath

Shortness of breath can be severe. If you have been experiencing symptoms for a long time or it happens very suddenly, it is worth getting in touch with your doctor to talk about your situation.

Shortness of breath could be a sign of an emergency too. If you are experiencing the following symptoms, contact your local urgent care service immediately6,7:

  • Severe shortness of breath
  • Tight or heavy chest pain
  • Pain in arms, back, neck, and jaw
  • Feeling nauseous or being sick
  • Bluish tinge to the skin, lips or nails
  • Fainting
  • Change in alertness

Last updated: 24 March 2021

Sources

  1. https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/shortness-of-breath/
  2. https://www.healthline.com/health/what-does-shortness-of-breath-feel-like
  3. https://www.blf.org.uk/support-for-you/breathlessness/what-is-it
  4. https://www.mayoclinic.org/symptoms/shortness-of-breath/basics/causes/sym-20050890
  5. https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/319175
  6. https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/319175
  7. https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/shortness-of-breath/
 

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