Dyspnea – symptoms, causes and other associated risk factors

Dypsnea Causes and Symptoms

There are many sensations which are frightening. This is the case with not being able to get enough air. Dyspnea is the medical term which is used for shortness of breath. Dyspnea is described as a feeling of suffocation, air hunger or an intense tightening in the chest. There are many causes which can lead to shortness of breath in healthy person, such as high altitude, massive obesity, extreme temperatures and very strenuous exercise. If the mentioned factors are not causes for dyspnea, then it means that shortness of breath is a sign of medical problem. If you have shortness of breath for which you do not know the cause, then you should talk with your doctor as soon as possible. Also you should talk with your doctor if your shortness of breath comes suddenly and it is severe. The shortness of breath is a very common problem. There are some studies in which are said that one in every four people who have visited the doctor has dyspnea.

Dypsnea symptoms

The labored breathing is the main symptom of dyspnea. This can last for a minute or 2 after strenuous activity. But the dyspnea can be a chronic problem. You can have sensation that you are not getting enough air into your lungs all the time [1]. When there are serious cases, then you can feel as though you are suffocating. When there are bouts of dyspnea, then they can lead to chest tightness. The dyspnea which has happened after strenuous exercise is understandable. But you should seek medical help if any of the following occurs:

  • You start to experience dyspnea without any explanation
  • You are breathless after activity that you used to handle without a problem
  • You are short of breath sooner than you used to be after physical activity

Dyspnea - symptoms, causes and other associated risk factors

Dypsnea causes

In the most cases, the shortness of breath is caused by lung or heart conditions. We know that our heart and lungs are involved in the transportation of oxygen to the tissues and removing carbon dioxide and if there are some problems with either of these processes, then they are affecting your breathing. The shortness of breath which comes suddenly, also known as acute shortness of breath, has a limited number of causes, in which are included:

  • Upper airway obstruction (blockage in the breathing passage)
  • Sudden blood loss
  • Pulmonary embolism (blood clot in an artery in the lung)
  • Pneumothorax (collapsed lung)
  • Pneumonia (and other pulmonary infections)
  • Low blood pressure (hypotension)
  • Heart failure
  • Heart attack
  • Cardiac tamponade (excess fluid around the heart)
  • Carbon monoxide poisoning
  • Asthma (bronchospasm)

When the shortness of breath is lasting for weeks or longer, then it is called chronic shortness of breath. This condition can be caused by:

  • Obesity
  • Interstitial lung disease
  • Heart dysfunction
  • Deconditioning
  • COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease)
  • Asthma

There are many other health conditions which can make it hard for you to get enough air. Here are some of these conditions:

  1. Lung problems [2]:
  • Tuberculosis
  • Sarcoidosis (collections of inflammatory cells in the body)
  • Pulmonary hypertension (high blood pressure within the lung’s blood vessels)
  • Pulmonary fibrosis (scarred and damaged lungs)
  • Pulmonary edema (excess fluid in the lungs)
  • Pleurisy (inflammation of the membrane surrounding the lungs)
  • Lung cancer
  • Croup (especially in young children)
  1. Heart problems [3]:
  • Pericarditis (inflammation of the tissue around the heart)
  • Heart failure
  • Heart arrhythmias (heart rhythm problems)
  • Cardiomyopathy (problem with the heart muscle)
  1. Other problems:
  • Myasthenia gravis (condition causing muscle weakness)
  • Guillain – Barre syndrome
  • Generalized anxiety disorder
  • Foreign object inhaled
  • Epiglottitis (swelling of the “lid” of your windpipe)
  • Choking
  • Broken ribs
  • Anemia

Triggers: There are some environmental pollutants [4], such as smoke, dust, fumes and chemicals which can make it more difficult for people with dyspnea to breathe. Those people who suffer from asthma can find that exposure to allergens such as mold or pollen can trigger episodes of dyspnea. There are some pollutants, such as smoking that can be self – administered and prevented [5]. The term COPD is used for different lung diseases in which are included chronic bronchitis and emphysema. All of the mentioned conditions can make the breathing more difficult.


[1] Mukerji V. Chapter 11: Dyspnea, orthopnea, and paroxysmal nocturnal dyspnea. In Clinical Methods: The History, Physical, and Laboratory Examinations (3rd ed.). Walker HK, Hall WD, Hurst JW (Ed.). Boston:Butterworths. 1990.

[2] Burki NK, Lee LY. Mechanisms of dyspnea. Chest. 2010;138(5):1196–201.

[3] Santos M, Kitzman DW, Matsushita K, et al. Prognostic importance of dyspnea for cardiovascular outcomes and mortality in persons without prevalent cardiopulmonary disease: The atherosclerosis risk in communities study. PLoS One. 2016;11(10):e0165111.

[4] Jiang XQ, Mei XD, Feng D. Air pollution and chronic airway diseases: what should people know and do? Journal of Thoracic Disease. 2016;8(1):E31–40.

[5] Rosi E, Scano G. Cigarette smoking and dyspnea perception. Tobacco Induced Diseases. 2004;2(1):3.


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