What Causes Shortness of Breath?
August 3, 2022
If you’ve just climbed three flights of stairs, run a 5K race, or wrapped up a tennis match, being short of breath is pretty normal.
But if you suddenly and unexpectedly struggle to breathe, you should call a doctor immediately. You may be suffering from a condition that needs immediate medical attention. If your shortness of breath is mild or you’ve been struggling with the problem for some time, it may be the side effect of a long-term condition.
Causes of Breathlessness
Many conditions can cause this problem, some more serious than others:
- Asthma. Sudden breathlessness can result from an asthma attack, a narrowing of your airways, causing you to wheeze and cough. You may need an inhaler to help you breathe.
- Heart rhythm problems. Conditions like atrial fibrillation, an irregular heart rate, and supraventricular tachycardia, a regular and fast heart rate, can affect your ability to breathe. They require medical attention.
- Panic attack or anxiety. People experiencing panic attacks can begin to hyperventilate or take rapid, deep breaths. If you are sure this is the cause of your struggle to breathe, try to concentrate on slowing your breathing or breathing through a paper bag.
- Severe allergic reaction. This condition, also known as anaphylaxis, can result from severe allergic reactions to some foods, such as nuts, shellfish, or insect stings. It can be life-threatening. Severe allergic reactions can cause difficulty breathing, rashes, swelling, stomach pain, and other symptoms. You should rush to the hospital.
- Pulmonary embolism. This occurs when a blood clot blocks the blood flow to part of your lung. Symptoms include sudden shortness of breath and chest pain. PE requires immediate medical attention.
What Can I Do to Prevent Shortness of Breath?
Adopting healthy habits will help you avoid long-term breathlessness. Getting fit can help you avoid:
- Obesity. Nearly 42% of American adults are obese, officially defined as having a body mass index of 30 or higher. Beyond breathlessness, obesity can lead to diabetes, heart disease, stroke, and cancer.
- Uncontrolled asthma. If you have asthma, you should see a doctor regularly to manage it with appropriate medication. And, if you have asthma, you should stop smoking.
- Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). This permanent damage to the lungs caused by years of smoking. If you still smoke, stop.
- Anemia. If you have a shortage of red blood cells or low hemoglobin, the part of those cells that carries oxygen, you need medical attention. A doctor may recommend supplements or blood transfusions.
- Heart failure. This occurs when your heart has trouble pumping blood through the body. It can result from genetics, obesity, age, or a heart attack. Once you suffer from heart failure, treatment requires routine doctor visits.
Get the Care You Need
If you’re experiencing sudden shortness of breath, you should call 911. If the problem is more periodic and less urgent, you should discuss it with your doctor. If you do not have a doctor, Grady can help. If you need a primary care physician, book your appointment online at gradyhealth.org, use MyChart, or call (404) 616-1000. We’ll arrange an appointment at a Primary Care Center near you. Doctors there can treat most conditions and provide access to Grady’s unparalleled medical specialty expertise.