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Feeling Breathless? Dyspnea Causes, Diagnosis, and Treatment

Medically reviewed by Mae Charisse Antalan, MD · General Practitioner

Written by Nikita Bhalla · Updated Feb 16, 2023

Feeling Breathless? Dyspnea Causes, Diagnosis, and Treatment

Shortness of breath, breathing difficulty, or breathlessness is known as dyspnea in medical terminology. There is a wide range of medical conditions that may cause breathlessness. These conditions differ in intensity from mild and moderate to severe. The possible medical conditions can be either benign and short-lived or severe and long-term. All these disorders are most likely to be accompanied by other symptoms besides breathlessness. Both men and women, and adults and children may develop dyspnea related to a particular disorder or condition. What does dyspnea look like and what are dyspnea causes? Read on to find out.

What does dyspnea look like?

Dyspnea or shortness of breath is a symptom of various conditions. It may occur together with other symptoms, depending on the underlying medical condition a patient has.

The possible symptoms accompanying breathlessness are: 

  • Persistent and worsening cough
  • Coughing up blood
  • Change in the type of cough
  • Wheezing or sharp whistling sound made while inhaling and exhaling
  • Shoulder or chest pain
  • Panic attack
  • Sudden weakness and fatigue

Dyspnea causes to watch out for

The following are among the probable underlying dyspnea causes.

  • COPD (Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease)
  • Lung disorders like emphysema, lung cancer, etc.
  • Some heart disorders which are likely to be accompanied by swelling of hands/feet
  • Pneumonia, along with other manifestations like cough, high fever, mucus, etc.
  • Airway obstructions, exposure to cigarette smoke, or extreme exposure to dust or fumes
  • Asthma or allergies caused due to obstruction of lung airways due to inflammation and mucous accumulation
  • Panic disorder
  • Anemia and similar disorders that manifest through pale skin and weakness
  • Disorders manifested through disrupted blood flow to the brain
  • Extreme anxiety and emotional stress
  • Chest infection, cold, and chest congestion
  • Sudden weight gain or obesity due to lack of exercise

Risk factors for dyspnea-related conditions

  • Smoking is one of the leading causes of various severe medical conditions that manifest through breathlessness amongst other symptoms. The smoking habit not only leads to these disorders but also aggravates the condition.
  • Excessive consumption of alcohol can cause various health conditions that manifest through symptoms like shortness of breath amongst others.
  • Obesity and sudden weight gain may also make breathing difficult.
  • How is dyspnea diagnosed?

    The diagnostic procedure of the medical condition involves a combination of physical examination and investigation of medical conditions and drug therapy. This is likely to be followed by medical tests. Let’s take a close look at the process:

    Physical examination

    The doctor will physically examine you thoroughly based on your breathing difficulties and other symptoms. He/she is likely to use a stethoscope to check the rate of heartbeats and listen to breath sounds. 

    Investigation of medical conditions

    Your doctor will enquire about your personal and family history of medical conditions to determine possible dyspnea causes. This will enable him/her to evaluate whether shortness of breath might be an underlying cause of any of these health conditions. It will help the doctor eliminate medical conditions that could have otherwise been a possible cause of this health condition. 

    Medical tests for dyspnea causes

    The doctor may recommend the following diagnostic tests based on his/her evaluation:

    • Chest X-ray: This is an imaging test that involves focusing radiation on the chest to reproduce an exact image of the organs. The image gets reflected on the computer monitor via the X-ray machine and then recreated on a black film, which is the X-ray test result. This test is effective in identifying the type, exact location, and extent of abnormalities, which is the underlying cause of dyspnea.
    • CT scan: A Computerized Tomography or CT scan is also an imaging test that involves the administration of electromagnetic waves on the affected location. This helps to recreate the image of the organs and other structures of the chest onto a computer monitor. This also serves the purpose of identifying abnormalities in the chest that have been making breathing difficult.
    • Electrocardiogram: An ECG test traces the electrical signals of the heart to monitor the prevalence of abnormalities like abnormal heartbeats. Unusual rhythms of the heart may indicate medical conditions like arrhythmias or dysrhythmias. 
    • Ambulatory cardiac monitoring: This involves using a monitor to monitor heart activities over varying time spans. While a holter monitor may measure heart activities for 24 hours, other types of monitors may be used for more than two weeks.
    • Exercise tests: These tests specialise in analysing heart rates, blood pressure, and changes in breathing. 
    • Blood tests: Blood oxygen saturation and/or arterial blood gas may be evaluated.
    • Spirometry or Pulmonary Function Test: This measures lung capacity and lung volumes. It will determine if there is an obstructive or restrictive respiratory impairment on lung function.

    Treatment and Lifestyle Changes

    The treatment for shortness of breath depends on the medical condition that is causing it and its severity. In case of mild and moderate disorders, medications may be effective treatment. Severe conditions may require surgery.

    The following lifestyle changes should be incorporated to treat shortness of breath and also reduce the risk of recurrence:

    • Quit smoking.
    • Regulate alcohol intake (not more than 1 drink daily for women and not more than 2 drinks a day for men).
    • Follow a fitness routine to keep your weight in check.
    • Maintain a healthy diet with fresh fruits and vegetables, lean meat, and food products rich in essential vitamins.

    Key takeaway

    Dyspnea, or breathlessness, can be a symptom of a wide variety of medical conditions. Underlying dyspnea causes may include COPD, lung disorders, panic disorder, anemia, and more. The dyspnea causes will also point to what kind of treatment a patient needs.

    Learn more about Other Respiratory Issues here


    Hello Health Group does not provide medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.

    Medically reviewed by

    Mae Charisse Antalan, MD

    General Practitioner

    Written by Nikita Bhalla · Updated Feb 16, 2023

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