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Breathlessness

Dr Karen Martin
Reviewed by Dr Karen MartinReviewed on 19.10.2023 | 3 minutes read
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Breathlessness, known medically as dyspnea, is when people describe a feeling of being out of breath, short of breath or they find it uncomfortable to breathe. It is an unpleasant feeling which can happen to anyone. If it occurs outside of a situation you would normally expect, for example when exercising, or if it is accompanied by other symptoms such as chest pain, it is important to speak to your doctor right away to rule out a concerning underlying cause. Because there are so many possible reasons for feeling breathless, always speak to your doctor about it if it happens to you.

What can cause breathlessness?

Breathlessness can occur suddenly (acutely) or be chronic (happening over a long period of time). Common reasons why acute breathlessness can occur include asthma, COVID-19, pneumonia, anxiety, panic attacks, anemia, medicines such as beta-blockers, and heart failure. With chronic breathlessness, obesity, smoking, poorly controlled asthma, COPD and an irregular heartbeat are all common triggers.

How can I manage my symptoms?

It is very important to manage your lifestyle, so losing weight, stopping smoking and avoiding alcohol are all advised. If you’re anemic, then eating foods rich in iron can be a helpful first step.

There are some easy ways to manage your breathlessness symptoms at home. Slow deep breathing in through your nose and out through your mouth is a good technique to ensure good oxygen delivery to the lungs and it's also a work-out for the muscles that control your breathing. There are other breathing techniques that you can try to find one that works for you.

You should have a nice open posture to allow as much air into your lungs as possible. Staying active versus resting is a fine balance with breathlessness. Keep healthy, but when you feel your symptoms coming on, be sure to take a rest and keep the things you need close by you.

When should I see my doctor?

If you experience breathlessness, always discuss this with your doctor, especially if the breathlessness is severe, lasts a long time (greater than two weeks), or if it’s accompanied by other symptoms such as coughing, palpitations, ankle swelling or difficulty breathing upon lying down flat.

Seek urgent medical attention if you are struggling to breathe and experiencing chest pain. This is particularly important if you have chest pain that goes down your arm or to your jaw, nausea or vomiting, you are sweaty and pale, or you become suddenly breathless. This could be due to a heart attack or a clot in the lungs and requires immediate attention by calling 911 for an ambulance. 

What will my doctor do?

Your doctor will take a detailed history from you, check your vital signs such as your pulse rate, oxygen levels in your tissues and your blood pressure, and they will also examine your heart and lungs as part of a general physical examination. Depending on their findings, they may refer you urgently to the hospital, or they may order blood tests, lung function tests with the practice nurse or hospital clinic, sometimes a chest X-ray to look at the lungs, an electrocardiogram (ECG) to look at the electrical activity of the heart or an echocardiogram – an ultrasound scan that checks the structure of the heart. They may also decide to refer you to a lung or heart specialist for further assessment.

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This article has been written by UK-based doctors and pharmacists, so some advice may not apply to US users and some suggested treatments may not be available. For more information, please see our T&Cs.
Dr Karen Martin
Reviewed by Dr Karen Martin
Reviewed on 19.10.2023
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