What is shortness of breath aka dyspnea?

Dyspnea is the medical term for difficulty breathing or shortness of breath. It is a symptom of many conditions that affect the respiratory system.

Shortness of breath can range from mild and temporary to serious and long lasting. It is sometimes difficult to diagnose and treat dyspnea because there can be many different causes.

It is a common problem. Around 1 in every 4 people who visit emergency services have dyspnea.

Symptoms of dyspnea

Signs that a person is experiencing dyspnea include:

  • shortness of breath after exertion
  • labored breathing
  • tightness in the chest
  • rapid, shallow breathing
  • feelings of being smothered or suffocated
  • heart palpitations
  • wheezing
  • coughing

If dyspnea occurs suddenly or if symptoms are severe, it may be a sign of a serious medical condition.

Causes of dyspnea

An episode of dyspnea is not always directly related to an individual’s health. A person can feel short of breath after intense exercise when traveling to a high altitude or through major temperature changes.

However, dyspnea usually relates to health problems. Sometimes, it is just a case of inactivity, and exercise can improve symptoms. However, dyspnea can be a sign of a serious health issue.

If shortness of breath starts suddenly, it is an acute case of dyspnea.

Acute dyspnea could be due to:

  • asthma
  • anxiety
  • pneumonia
  • cardiac disease
  • foreign objects obstructing airways
  • allergic reactions
  • anemia
  • acute onset weakness such as iron deficiency
  • exposure to dangerous levels of carbon monoxide
  • heart failure
  • multiple sclerosis

Dyspnea is also common among people with a terminal illness. If a person experiences shortness of breath for over a month, the condition is called chronic dyspnea.

Chronic dyspnea could be due to:

  • asthma
  • chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)
  • heart problems such as pericarditis or cardiomyopathy
  • obesity
  • interstitial pulmonary fibrosis, which causes scarring of the lung tissue


Environmental pollutants can trigger bouts of dyspnea or make a person more likely to experience it. These include:

  • smoking
  • inhalation of chemicals and fumes
  • living or working in dusty conditions
  • living or working around mold

Complications of dyspnea

Dyspnea can be associated with hypoxia or hypoxemia, which is low blood oxygen levels. This can lead to a decreased level of consciousness and other severe symptoms.

If a person experiences recurrent hypoxia, there is a risk of either temporary or permanent cognitive impairment.


Treatment will depend on the cause of the problem.

A person short of breath due to overexertion will probably get their breath back once they stop and relax.

In more severe cases, a person may require supplemental oxygen. Those with asthma or COPD may have an inhaled rescue bronchodilator to use when necessary. However, not everyone with shortness of breath will have low blood oxygen levels.

For those with chronic conditions, such as COPD, a healthcare professional will work with the individual to help them breathe more easily. This will involve developing a treatment plan that helps to prevent acute episodes and slow down the progression of the overall disease.


Individuals with dyspnea can take measures to improve their overall health and give themselves more breathing room.

These include:

  • quitting smoking
  • avoiding second-hand smoke where possible
  • avoiding other environmental triggers such as chemical fumes and wood smoke
  • exercising to strengthen the cardiovascular and respiratory systems
  • taking time adjusting to higher altitudes

Specific groups

Dyspnea can affect specific groups of people in different ways:

  • Pregnant people: Mild symptoms of dyspnea are common during pregnancy. This is because pregnancy alters a person’s breathing capacity.
  • Older adults: Dyspnea is common among older adults. One Canadian study found that 1 in 5 older adults experienced dyspnea symptoms when climbing stairs or walking uphill.


The outlook for people with dyspnea depends on the cause.

If the underlying condition can be successfully treated and improved, such as pneumonia or non-severe asthma, then breathing problems may be eliminated or greatly reduced.

However, if shortness of breath is due to serious or chronic diseases that worsen over time, such as chronic heart failure, severe asthma, or COPD, improvement may be limited.

Patients with dyspnea need to work with their healthcare professional to develop and follow a comprehensive treatment plan.