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When is Shortness of Breath an Emergency? Find Out Here

When is Shortness of Breath an Emergency? Find Out Here

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 when is shortness of breath an emergency?

When is shortness of breath an emergency: 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 that resolves spontaneously or with rest 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.

When is shortness of breath an emergency: 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

Dyspnea 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

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.

When is shortness of breath an emergency: What causes some shortness of breath?

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

  • Blocked nasal airways due to having a cold
  • Being overweight or obese
  • Asthma
  • Having COPD or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease
  • Lung cancer
  • Pneumonia
  • Heart failure
  • Heart attack
  • Low blood pressure
  • Anemia
  • Allergic reaction
  • Experiencing a panic 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: What you need to know

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

Sudden onset shortness of breath especially when accompanied by chest pain or cold sweats might be sign of a heart attack and warrants immediate medical attention. Shortness of breath happening suddenly after a potential allergen in food or the environment is also an emergency.

Here are some other conditions that might prompt a medical consultation:

  • If you have been experiencing progressive and recurring 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 and fever or chills.
  • 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.

When is shortness of breath an emergency: 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.

When is shortness of breath an emergency: 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.

Key takeaway

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 about Other Respiratory Issues here.

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

Sources

Dyspnea, Orthopnea, and Paroxysmal Nocturnal Dyspnea – Clinical Methods – NCBI Bookshelf, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK213/#:~:text=Pulmonary%20disease%20constitutes%20another%20major,allergic%20pneumonitis%2C%20and%20interstitial%20fibrosis., Accessed June 18 2020

Shortness of breath Causes – Mayo Clinic, https://www.mayoclinic.org/symptoms/shortness-of-breath/basics/causes/sym-20050890, Accessed June 18 2020

Shortness of breath – NHS, https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/shortness-of-breath/, Accessed June 18 2020

Diagnosing and Treating Shortness of Breath | American Lung Association, https://www.lung.org/lung-health-diseases/lung-disease-lookup/shortness-of-breath/diagnosing-treating, Accessed June 18 2020

Shortness of Breath – Causes – Risk Factors | familydoctor.org, https://familydoctor.org/condition/shortness-of-breath/, Accessed June 18 2020

Shortness of Breath – Lung Health A-Z – CHEST Foundation, https://foundation.chestnet.org/lung-health-a-z/shortness-of-breath/, Accessed June 18 2020

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Written by Jan Alwyn Batara on Jun 19, 2020
Medically reviewed by Dr. Erika Caperonce
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