Do you know what it feels like when your body is lacking sufficient oxygen? It could feel like shortness of breath and that is never a nice experience. People who have shortness of breath describe it in different ways. Some people say that they feel like they can’t take a deep breath in or get enough air. Other people might feel like their chest is tight or they have to work harder than usual to breathe.
The medical word for shortness of breath is “dyspnea.” Shortness of breath can start suddenly, over minutes to hours. It can also happen over a longer period of time, from weeks to months. The more severe your shortness of breath, the more the likelihood of you having a condition that is life-threatening.
I have had the experience of seeing patients who ignore their shortness of breath and subsequently, had bad outcomes.
WHAT CAUSES SHORTNESS OF BREATH?
Different medical conditions can cause shortness of breath.
The most common causes of shortness of breath that starts suddenly are:
– Lung problems, such as asthma, infections, or blood clots – These conditions might cause other symptoms, too. For example, a lung infection usually causes a fever and cough.
– Heart problems, such as a heart attack or heart failure – A heart attack can also cause chest pain or pressure. Heart failure is when the heart does not pump as well as it should.
– A severe allergic reaction, called “anaphylaxis” – This can also cause itching, swelling, or a rash.
– Pregnancy – It can be normal for pregnant women to feel slightly short of breath just after they lie down or are active.
– Anxiety- Patients with anxiety feel the sense of having shortness of breath especially when they are anxious and their body is in “overdrive mode”
– High blood sugar: Persons with diabetes are at risk of having their high blood sugar causing acid build up in their body leading to a medical emergency called Diabetic Ketoacidosis (DKA). Diabetics with DKA will have shortness of breath when their body tries to compensate for the acid build up.
The most common causes of shortness of breath that happens over weeks to months are:
– Lung problems, such as asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) – Both of these conditions can make it hard to breathe. COPD is usually caused by smoking.
– Heart problems, such as heart failure or a change in the size and shape of the heart (called cardiomyopathy)
– Being overweight or out of shape
– Low blood count: Persons with low blood count that occurred over time will develop shortness of breath when they exert themselves.
IS SHORTNESS OF BREATH EVER NORMAL?
It is not usually normal but it may happen in healthy persons. Very strenuous exercise, extreme temperatures, massive obesity and high altitude all can cause shortness of breath in a healthy person. Outside of these examples, shortness of breath is likely a sign of a medical problem.
SHOULD I SEE A DOCTOR?
Yes. If you have shortness of breath, you should see your doctor. Sometimes shortness of breath means that your condition is serious and you need emergency help. Do not hesitate to visit the emergency room if you have:
– Shortness of breath and think you are having a heart attack
– Severe shortness of breath (hard to breathe when you are sitting still)
– An allergic reaction with shortness of breath
WILL I HAVE TESTS?
You might. Your doctor will talk with you, ask about your symptoms, and do an exam. Depending on what the doctor finds, he or she might order 1 or more of the following tests:
– Blood tests
– A chest X-ray
– An electrocardiogram (ECG or EKG) to measure the electrical activity in your heart
– A breathing test
Depending on your results, you might need more tests, too.
HOW IS SHORTNESS OF BREATH TREATED?
Shortness of breath is treated in different ways, depending on the cause. Once your doctor figures out the cause of your symptoms, he or she will talk with you about different possible treatments
If you have unexplained shortness of breath, especially if it comes on suddenly and is severe, do not hesitate to see your doctor. It is most likely a sign of danger to your life.