What is shortness of breath?
Shortness of breath (also known as breathlessness or dyspnoea) is a very noticeable symptom where the patient finds it difficult to breathe properly, tiring out quickly, and not taking in enough oxygen with each breath. Breathing usually become quick and shallow, perhaps even hyperventilating, and may be accompanied by wheezing, coughing, or chest pain.
What symptoms are associated with shortness of breath?
Shortness of breath is a symptom rather than a diagnosis, and can be symptomatic of many underlying problems. As such, breathlessness may be accompanied by a number of symptoms, including:
- Chest pain;
- Pleurisy (pain with respiration);
- Neck pain;
- Feelings of anxiety.
By analysing when the shortness of breath occurs (for example at rest or when doing exercise), and the other symptoms that accompany it, doctors can diagnose the root cause.
What causes shortness of breath?
There are many things that can cause dyspnoea, many of which can be serious, and some of which are even life-threatening, such as lung cancer and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).
If you have sudden shortness of breath and are struggling to breathe, your chest feels tight or heavy, and you are experiencing pain which spreads to your neck, back, arms, and/or jaw, these are signs that you are having a heart attack or have a serious problem with your airways, and you should immediately call 999, as you will need hospital treatment.
Breathlessness can be symptomatic of:
- Interstitial lung disease;
- Pulmonary oedema;
- Pulmonary fibrosis;
- Heart failure;
- Inhaling a foreign object;
- Low blood pressure;
- Carbon monoxide poisoning;
- Anxiety disorder.
When should I see a doctor about shortness of breath?
You should never feel you cannot consult a doctor – even if the problem does not seem serious, you are not wasting anyone’s time getting it checked out. You should definitely see a doctor for shortness of breath in the following circumstances:
- It has been going on for over a month;
- You have swelling around your feet and ankles;
- You have been coughing for three weeks or more;
- You experience fevers and/or chills;
- Your breathlessness is worse when you lie down or do exercise.
How do I know if my shortness of breath is serious?
If shortness of breath comes on suddenly and affects the ability to function, you should get in touch with your emergency services.
It could be related to a heart attack or pulmonary embolism if shortness of breath is accompanied by:
- Chest pain;
- A bluish tinge to lips or nails, or;
- Change in mental alertness.
Again, you should seek emergency medical care if you experience any of these symptoms.
How is shortness of breath treated?
The treatment for breathlessness depends entirely on the cause. The possible causes of dyspnoea are numerous and diverse, and therefore, so are the possible treatments. General advice, especially for chronic shortness of breath, would be to stop smoking, lose weight, and avoid exposure to allergens and pollutants that could make it worse.
What tests are done for shortness of breath?
Shortness of breath could be a symptom of another condition so while doctors look for shortness of breath symptoms, tests could be ordered to identify an underlying cause. These include:
- Blood tests;
- Imaging tests such as chest X-ray or CT scan;
- Lung function tests such as Spirometry;
What specialist treats shortness of breath?
Pulmonologists treat breathing-related conditions and specialise in the respiratory system. However, once the underlying cause is identified you could be referred to other specialists such as a cardiologist or nutritionist.03-26-2018 10-26-2023