Shortness of Breath

ExitCare ImageShortness of breath means you have trouble breathing. Shortness of breath may indicate that you have a medical problem. You should seek immediate medical care for shortness of breath.


  • Not enough oxygen in the air (as with high altitudes or a smoke-filled room).

  • Short-term (acute) lung disease, including:

  • Infections, such as pneumonia.

  • Fluid in the lungs, such as heart failure.

  • A blood clot in the lungs (pulmonary embolism).

  • Long-term (chronic) lung diseases.

  • Heart disease (heart attack, angina, heart failure, and others).

  • Low red blood cells (anemia).

  • Poor physical fitness. This can cause shortness of breath when you exercise.

  • Chest or back injuries or stiffness.

  • Being overweight.

  • Smoking.

  • Anxiety. This can make you feel like you are not getting enough air.


Serious medical problems can usually be found during your physical exam. Tests may also be done to determine why you are having shortness of breath. Tests may include:

  • Chest X-rays.

  • Lung function tests.

  • Blood tests.

  • Electrocardiography.

  • Exercise testing.

  • Echocardiography.

  • Imaging scans.

Your caregiver may not be able to find a cause for your shortness of breath after your exam. In this case, it is important to have a follow-up exam with your caregiver as directed.


Treatment for shortness of breath depends on the cause of your symptoms and can vary greatly.


  • Do not smoke. Smoking is a common cause of shortness of breath. If you smoke, ask for help to quit.

  • Avoid being around chemicals or things that may bother your breathing, such as paint fumes and dust.

  • Rest as needed. Slowly resume your usual activities.

  • If medicines were prescribed, take them as directed for the full length of time directed. This includes oxygen and any inhaled medicines.

  • Keep all follow-up appointments as directed by your caregiver.


  • Your condition does not improve in the time expected.

  • You have a hard time doing your normal activities even with rest.

  • You have any side effects or problems with the medicines prescribed.

  • You develop any new symptoms.


  • Your shortness of breath gets worse.

  • You feel lightheaded, faint, or develop a cough not controlled with medicines.

  • You start coughing up blood.

  • You have pain with breathing.

  • You have chest pain or pain in your arms, shoulders, or abdomen.

  • You have a fever.

  • You are unable to walk up stairs or exercise the way you normally do.


  • Understand these instructions.

  • Will watch your condition.

  • Will get help right away if you are not doing well or get worse.