When Should Shortness of Breath Be a Cause for Concern?

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Update Date 19/06/2020 . 4 mins read
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Shortness of breath is a fairly common symptom that you might have experienced at one point or another. It may or may not be a sign of an underlying health problem, and it can sometimes be difficult to know when is shortness of breath an emergency.

But what exactly is shortness of breath, and how do you know if you need medical attention?

What is shortness of breath?

First off, let us define what exactly shortness of breath is. If you have ever exerted yourself during exercise, you might have already experienced this. Shortness of breath is a feeling that you are running out of breath, or having difficulty breathing.

For people who are not in good shape, or have lung problems such as asthma, it is possible that they could experience this more than others. For the most part, shortness of breath is nothing to worry about. By staying fit and engaging in daily exercise, you should be able to avoid this problem.

However, it can also be caused by more serious lung or even heart problems. If you experience shortness of breath, it is important to pay attention to the symptoms you might be experiencing in order to know if you need to go to the doctor or not.

What are the types of shortness of breath?

Shortness of breath can be classified under three main types; dyspnea, orthopnea, and paroxymal nocturnal dyspnea. Here are their definitions:


Dyspnea is what most people experience when they experience shortness of breath. It is characterized by difficulty or discomfort when breathing. Usually, people experience dyspnea when they overexert themselves, such as with strenuous exercise or activity.

However, when a person experiences dyspnea during what is considered normal activity, then it might be a sign of an underlying health problem.


Orthopnea happens when a person experiences shortness of breath when they are lying down. People who experience orthopnea usually feel better if they sit up or stand up.

Paroxysmal Nocturnal Dyspnea

Paroxysmal nocturnal dyspnea occurs when a person is sleeping, and experiences shortness of breath that wakes them up. It usually happens after one to two hours of sleep, and just like orthopnea, sitting or standing up can help patients feel better.

What causes shortness of breath?

Shortness of breath can be caused by a number of things, such as the following:

  • Asthma
  • Having COPD or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease
  • Anemia
  • Pneumonia
  • Low blood pressure
  • Having a cold
  • Being overweight or obese
  • Experiencing a panic attack
  • Lung cancer
  • Chest infection
  • Allergies
  • Heart failure
  • Heart attack

Any of these things can cause shortness of breath, which is why it can be difficult to tell whether or not it is an emergency based on one symptom alone.

When is shortness of breath an emergency?

As to when is shortness of breath an emergency, there are a number of things to consider before you visit your doctor.

Here are some signs that you should get it checked out:

  • If you have been experiencing shortness of breath for a month or more.
  • If you experience shortness of breath whenever you do physical activity.
  • Your symptoms get worse when you are lying down.
  • You experience a cough along with difficulty breathing for more than 3 weeks.
  • If it appears suddenly and you are having a hard time doing things normally.
  • When it is accompanied by nausea or dizziness.
  • If you notice a bluish tinge on your lips or under your fingernails.
  • When you suddenly feel less alert or disoriented

The symptoms above could possibly mean that your shortness of breath is the result of an underlying condition.

If you experience these symptoms, it would be best to visit your doctor to see if you have any health problems.

The sooner you can get it checked, the better the outcome would be.

How is shortness of breath treated?

Treatment for shortness of breath largely depends on the underlying cause. If it is the result of a lung problem, then your doctor might prescribe medication to make it easier for you to breathe. You might also be asked to refrain from doing any strenuous activity in the meantime.

In more serious cases, such as a heart attack, your treatment would center around making sure it does not happen again.

You might also be asked to take certain types of medication to improve your heart function, and in some cases you could also undergo physical therapy to help get your strength back and improve your heart health.

If you experience shortness of breath as a result of being out of shape, then your doctor might recommend that you lose weight or start exercising to help get you fit.

What can you do to prevent it?

Here are some ways that can help you prevent shortness of breath:

  • If you are a smoker, quit smoking. Smoking puts you at risk of heart disease, hypertension, lung cancer, as well as a host of other health problems. It would be best to quit as soon as possible in order to avoid future health problems.
  • Be sure to exercise at least 30 minutes each day. Exercise helps keep your lungs strong and improves physical fitness. It helps you avoid getting winded or out of breath from physical activity as well.
  • If you have asthma or other lung problems, be sure to avoid too much heat or too much cold. Very hot or very cold weather can make your dyspnea (difficulty breathing) worse. So it would be a good idea to avoid any of these temperature extremes.
  • Avoid air pollution. If you live in an area with a lot of smog, be sure to wear a face mask to help filter out pollutants in the air.
  • If you have been diagnosed with heart problems, be sure to listen to your doctor’s advice and take your medication.

Shortness of breath can either be a minor problem, or a serious health concern. It is important to listen to what your body tells you and do not ignore any warning signs of any severe heart or lung problems.

Learn more about respiratory health, here.

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

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