Shortness of Breath

Shortness of breath (dyspnea) is the feeling of uneasy breathing. Shortness of breath does not always mean that there is a life-threatening illness. However, shortness of breath requires immediate medical care.


Causes for shortness of breath include:

  • Not enough oxygen in the air (as with high altitudes or with 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).

  • Lasting (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 (obese).

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


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

  • Chest X-rays.

  • Lung function tests.

  • Blood tests.

  • Electrocardiography.

  • Exercise testing.

  • A cardiac echo.

  • 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.


  • Do not smoke. Smoking is a common cause of shortness of breath. Ask for help to stop smoking.

  • Avoid being around chemicals that may bother your breathing (paint fumes, 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.

  • Follow up with your caregiver as directed. Waiting to do so or failure to follow up could result in worsening of your condition and possible disability or death.

  • Be sure you understand what to do or who to call if your shortness of breath worsens.


  • 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 is getting 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.

  • Your symptoms are getting worse.