Shortness of Breath: Basic 15 Symptoms & Causes

Shortness of breath
Shortness of breath

There are few sensations that are frightening and one of them is not being able to get enough air. Shortness of breath is also known as dyspnea. It is often described as an intense tightening in the chest, a feeling of suffocation, breathlessness, difficulty breathing, and air hunger. In a healthy person, higher altitude, obesity, extreme temperatures, and very strenuous exercises can cause shortness of breath. But, when the mentioned causes are not caused for your shortness of breath, then the shortness of breath is likely a sign of a medical problem. If you have unexplained shortness of breath, especially if it comes on suddenly and it is severe, then you should see your doctor as soon as possible.

Shortness of breath

Shortness of Breath:


Shortness of breath has many causes affecting either the lungs and breathing passages or the blood vessels or heart. Your doctor will see if the shortness of breath is happening at rest or it is associated with exercise, exertion, or activity. Also, your doctor will want to know if the shortness of breath is happening gradually or all of sudden. Each of these symptoms will help your doctor to discover the precise cause of shortness of breath. Also, shortness of breath can be associated with symptoms, such as

  • Wheezing
  • Rapid, shallow breathing
  • Pain with inspiration
  • Neck pain
  • Labored breathing
  • Heart palpitations
  • Fatigue
  • Fainting
  • Dizziness
  • Cough
  • Chest tightness
  • Chest pain
  • Chest injury
  • Bloody sputum
  • Anxiousness

Shortness of Breath: Causes

In most cases, shortness of breath is caused by a heart or lung condition. Your lungs and heart are involved in transporting oxygen to your tissues and removing carbon dioxide and problems with either of these processes can affect your breathing. The shortness of breath which comes on suddenly (also known as acute) has a limited number of causes, such as

  • Upper airway obstruction (blockage in the breathing passage) [1]
  • Sudden blood loss
  • A pulmonary embolism (blood clot in an artery in the lung) [2]
  • Pneumothorax (collapsed lung) [3]
  • Pneumonia (and other pulmonary infections) [4]
  • Heart failure [5]
  • Heart arrhythmias (heart rhythm problems)
  • Heart attack
  • Coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID – 19)
  • COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease) exacerbation – worsening of the symptoms
  • Cardiac tamponade (excess fluid around the heart)
  • Carbon monoxide poisoning [6]
  • Asthma [5]
  • Anaphylaxis (a severe allergic reaction)

If the shortness of breath has lasted for weeks or longer (also known as chronic), then this condition is most often caused by:

  • Pleural effusion (accumulation of fluid around the lungs)
  • Obesity [7]
  • Interstitial lung disease
  • Heart dysfunction
  • Deconditioning [8]
  • COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease) exacerbation – worsening of the symptoms [9]
  • Asthma [5]

Also, there are many different health conditions which can make it hard to get enough air and they include:

  1. Lung problems: The most common lung problems which cause shortness of breath include [1]:
  • Tuberculosis
  • Sarcoidosis (collections of inflammatory cells in the body)
  • Pulmonary hypertension
  • Pulmonary fibrosis (scarred and damaged lungs)
  • Pulmonary edema (excess fluid in the lungs)
  • Pleurisy (inflammation of the membrane surrounding the lungs)
  • Lung cancer
  • Croup
  1. Heart problems: Some of the most common heart problems which could lead to shortness of breath include:
  • Pericarditis
  • Heart failure [5]
  • Cardiomyopathy
  1. Other problems: There can be other problems different than lung and heart problems which can cause shortness of breath, such as
  • Myasthenia gravis (this is a condition that is causing muscle weakness)
  • Kyphoscoliosis (it is a chest wall deformity)
  • Guillain – Barre syndrome
  • Foreign object inhaled: First aid
  • Epiglottitis (swelling of the lid of your windpipe)
  • Choking: First aid
  • Broken ribs
  • Anxiety disorders
  • Anemia

Most of the cases of shortness of breath are caused by lung or heart problems. If your shortness of breath is accompanied by worsening of preexisting shortness of breath, wheezing, high fever, chills and cough, trouble breathing when you lie flat or you have swelling in your feet and ankles, then you should talk with your doctor as soon as possible.


[1] MedlinePlus. Blockage of upper airway. Retrieved from

[2] Tarbox AK, Swaroop M. Pulmonary embolism. International Journal of Critical Illness and Injury Science. 2013;3(1):69–72. doi:10.4103/2229-5151.109427

[3] Choi WI. Pneumothorax. Tuberculosis and Respiratory Diseases. 2014;76(3):99–104.

[4] American Lung Association. Learn about pneumonia. Retrieved from

[5] Wahls SA. Causes and evaluation of chronic dyspnea. American Family Physician. 2012;86(2):173-80.

[6] Rose JJ, Wang L, Xu Q, et al. Carbon monoxide poisoning: Pathogenesis, management, and future directions of therapy. American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine. 2017;195(5):596–606. doi:10.1164/rccm.201606-1275CI

[7] Peters U, Dixon AE. The effect of obesity on lung function. Expert Review of Respiratory Medicine. 2018;12(9):755–67. doi:10.1080/17476348.2018.1506331

[8] Shim YM, Burnette A, Lucas S, et al. Physical deconditioning as a cause of breathlessness among obese adolescents with a diagnosis of asthma. PLoS One. 2013;8(4):e61022. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0061022

[9] Miravitlles M, Ribera A. Understanding the impact of symptoms on the burden of COPD. Respiratory Research. 2017;18.


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