Shortness of breath: a discussion

Written by: Dr Grace Robinson
Edited by: Aoife Maguire

Shortness of breath may induce panic and fear in an individual, provoking concern of a serious problem. Specialist in respiratory medicine Dr Grace Robinson discusses the condition, including potential causes, complications and breathing exercises which can be employed to alleviate symptoms. 



What are some potential causes of shortness of breath?


There are many possible causes of shortness of breath. For example, a viral or bacterial lower respiratory tract infection can provoke transient breathlessness, which can be associated with chest pain and cough with or without sputum. Treatment with antibiotics may be required in order to alleviate symptoms, which are expected to settle within a few weeks.


In some cases, breathlessness with a cough, chest tightness or wheeze may persist following a viral infection and be due to irritation of the breathing tubes. This breathless can be persistent, potentially lasting a long time, and requiring treatment with an inhaled steroid.


Breathlessness may develop as a result of more serious illnesses, such as the following:


  • Pneumonia/infection.
  • Smoking-related damage (emphysema).
  • Asthma.
  • Blood clots (pulmonary embolism).
  • Lung scarring or (fibrosis).
  • Lung collapse (pneumothorax).
  • Fluid on the lung (pleural effusion) or fluid related to cardiac failure.


The diagnosis of these conditions will usually requires specialist tests or scans. Additionally, being less fit, cardiac problems or weight gain can trigger breathlessness.


Are there specific tests or examinations you should undergo to understand the cause of breathing difficulties?


In order to determine the cause of breathlessness, most individuals will require a chest x-ray, breathing tests (spirometry) and / or full lung function testing. In certain cases, a CT scan or more complex breathing tests are necessary.


What are the potential complications or risks associated with shortness of breath?


Complications linked to breathlessness vary depending on the cause. Persistent breathlessness always warrants a diagnosis and appropriate treatment. In most cases, a significant underlying cause will be ruled out.


Are there any lifestyle changes I should consider to manage or improve breathing? 


Generally speaking, keep fit and active and keeping to a healthy weight will limits lack of fitness exacerbating the underlying breathless if there is a medical condition causing it.


What treatment options are available for managing breathing difficulties?


Treatment options vary depending on the cause of the breathlessness. Smoking related damage and asthma usually require inhaled therapy, while infection will be treated with antibiotics.


More complex treatments with ongoing monitoring are necessary for more complicated conditions such as blood clots and lung scaring. These usually need different treatments with ongoing monitoring.


Are there medications that could help alleviate shortness of breath, and what are their potential side effects?


Again, the treatment recommended will depend on the condition being treated, but most medications have few side effects. We would always opt for the treatment with the fewest side effects, with the most potential benefit.


Are there breathing exercises or techniques that could assist in managing shortness of breath?


General exercise is crucial in order to improve fitness, which in turn, will help patients suffering from many different medical conditions and breathlessness.


In some cases, specific breathing exercises may be advised, and the choice of exercises will depend on the specific condition being addressed. Typically, these exercises are instructed during specialised respiratory physiotherapy sessions.



If you are suffering from breathlessness and would like to book a consultation with Dr Robinson, simply visit her Top Doctors profile today.

By Dr Grace Robinson
Pulmonology & respiratory medicine

Dr Grace Robinson is a leading specialist in Pulmonology and Respiratory Medicine based in Reading. Her areas of expertise include acute and chronic cough, breathlessness, asthma, lung infections, COPD, lung cancer, sleep apnoea and snoring. She also has a sub-specialty interest in sleep and ventilation and bronchiectasis.

Dr Robinson qualified from St Mary's Hospital Medical School at the University of London in 1995 and went on to complete her general medical and respiratory training in Oxford. During her six years of training in Oxford, she held a position as a research training fellow at the Oxford Centre for Respiratory Medicine where she researched the cardiovascular effects of sleep apnoea and was awarded her Doctor of Medicine (MD) degree.

Since then, she has obtained a position as an NHS consultant in General and Respiratory Medicine at the Royal Berkshire Hospital and is a member of the British Thoracic Society Sleep Specialist Advisory Group. She also currently practices privately at the Spire Dunedin Hospital in Reading specialising in outpatient consultations for the diagnosis and management of all respiratory conditions.

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