Shortness of breath; Breathlessness; Difficulty breathing; Dyspnea
No standard definition exists for difficulty breathing. Some people may feel breathless with only mild exercise (for example, climbing stairs), even though they do not have a medical condition. Others may have advanced lung disease but never feel short of breath.
Wheezing is one form of breathing difficulty in which you make a high-pitched sound when you breathe out.
Shortness of breath has many different causes.
For example, heart disease can cause breathlessness if your heart is unable to pump enough blood to supply oxygen to your body. If your brain, muscles, or other body organs do not get enough oxygen, a sense of breathlessness may occur.
Breathing difficulty may also be due to problems with the lungs, heart, airways, or other health problems.
Sometimes, a small amount of breathing difficulty may be normal and is not cause for concern. A very stuffy nose is one example. Strenuous exercise, especially when you do not exercise often, is another example.
If breathing difficulty is new or is getting worse, it may be due to a serious problem. Though many causes are not dangerous and are easily treated, call your health care provider for any breathing difficulty.
If you are being treated for a long-term problem with your lungs or heart, follow your health care provider's directions to help with that problem.
Call your health care provider if
Go to the emergency room or call the local emergency number (such as 911) if:
Breathing difficulty comes on suddenly or seriously interferes with your breathing
Someone completely stops breathing
See your health care provider if breathing difficulty starts suddenly or is severe, or if any of the following occur with breathing difficulties:
Chest discomfort, pain, or pressure
Shortness of breath after only slight activity or while at rest
Shortness of breath that wakes you up at night or requires you to sleep propped up to breathe
Tightness in the throat or a barking, croupy cough
You have breathed in or choked on an object (foreign object aspiration or ingestion)
What to expect at your health care provider's office
The doctor or nurse will examine you and ask questions about your medical history and symptoms:
Do you make grunting or wheezing sounds while breathing?
Do you have to work hard to breathe?
How long have you had breathing difficulty?
Did it slowly progress over weeks to months?
Did it begin recently?
Did it begin suddenly?
Is there a sequence of separate episodes? How long does each last, and does each episode have a similar pattern?
Has the breathing difficulty gotten worse recently?
If the breathing difficulty is severe, you may need to go to a hospital. You may receive many different medicines to treat the cause of breathing difficulty.
If your blood oxygen level is very low, you may need oxygen. High doses of supplemental oxygen may be hazardous for some patients, however. Oxygen is not always needed for shortness of breath.
Schwartzstein RM, Adams L. Dyspnea. In: Mason RJ, Broaddus VC, Martin TR, et al, eds. Murray and Nadel's Textbook of Respiratory Medicine. 5th ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Saunders Elsevier; 2010:chap 28.
David C. Dugdale, III, MD, Professor of Medicine, Division of General Medicine, Department of Medicine, University of Washington School of Medicine. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, A.D.A.M., Inc.