Shortness of breath; Breathlessness; Difficulty breathing; Dyspnea
Breathing difficulty may involve:
There is no standard definition for difficulty breathing. Some people feel breathless with only mild exercise (for example, climbing stairs), even though they don't have a medical condition. Others may have advanced lung disease, but may never feel short of breath. Breathing difficulty is a subjective feeling; only the person feeling it can decide if it is present.
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, airways, or other health problems.
Problems with the lungs:
Problems with the airways leading to the lungs:
Problems with the heart:
Sometimes, mild breathing difficulty may be normal and is not a 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, contact 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 provider's directions to help with that problem.
Go to the emergency room or call the local emergency number (such as 911) if:
See your provider if any of the following occur with breathing difficulties:
The provider will examine you. You'll be asked about your medical history and symptoms. Questions may include how long you've had difficulty breathing and when it started. You may also be asked if anything worsens it and if you make grunting or wheezing sounds when breathing.
Tests that may be ordered include:
If the breathing difficulty is severe, you may need to go to a hospital. You may receive medicines to treat the cause of breathing difficulty.
If your blood oxygen level is very low, you may need oxygen.
Braithwaite SA, Wessel AL. Dyspnea. In: Walls RM, ed. Rosen's Emergency Medicine: Concepts and Clinical Practice. 10th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier; 2023:chap 21.
Kraft M. Approach to the patient with respiratory disease. In: Goldman L, Schafer AI, eds. Goldman-Cecil Medicine. 26th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier; 2020:chap 77.
Schwartzstein RM, Adams L. Dyspnea. In: Broaddus VC, Ernst JD, King TE, et al, eds. Murray and Nadel's Textbook of Respiratory Medicine. 7th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier; 2022:chap 36.BACK TO TOP
Review Date: 5/3/2023
Reviewed By: Denis Hadjiliadis, MD, MHS, Paul F. Harron, Jr. Professor of Medicine, Pulmonary, Allergy, and Critical Care, Perelman School of Medicine, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, PA. Also reviewed by David C. Dugdale, MD, Medical Director, Brenda Conaway, Editorial Director, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.
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