Shortness of Breath

What is shortness of breath?

When you are short of breath, you may feel like you can't get enough air or your chest may feel tight. Sometimes the feeling is worse when you are physically active or when you lie down flat.


You may have other symptoms such as a cough, chest pains or fever.

Shortness of breath can be caused by the following:

  • Asthma

  • Other lung diseases, including emphysema

  • Heart failure that causes fluid to collect in the lungs

  • Panic attacks

If you are short of breath with a cough and/or fever, you may have a chest infection or pneumonia. Less common causes of breathing problems are lung cancer, a blood clot in the lungs, air leakage around the lungs and scarring of the lung tissue.


To find the cause of your shortness of breath, your doctor may order a chest X-ray or an electrocardiogram (ECG). During this test, your doctor will have you lie down so your heart can be monitored. The ECG machine makes a picture called a tracing that shows your heart's electrical signals. Your doctor may measure your breathing and the oxygen level in your blood. You also may need to have a blood test.


In severe cases of difficulty breathing, hospitalization may be required. Many different medications, aimed at treating the cause of breathing difficulty, may be used in treatment. 

In situations where the blood oxygen level is significantly low, supplemental oxygen is helpful. High doses of supplemental oxygen may be hazardous for some patients, however, and is not necessary in all cases of shortness of breath.

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