What is dyspnea?
Dyspnea is the medical term for shortness of breath. Patients with dyspnea often describe tightness of the chest and a smothering sensation. These feelings can cause anxiety and psychological distress that makes symptoms worse, creating a vicious cycle.
Dyspnea isn't a condition or a disorder, but is instead a symptom that can be caused by many medical conditions. It's a self-reported symptom, since health professionals can't observe their patients and judge the severity of their dyspnea. Some health facilities have trained their staff to have patients to rate their dyspnea just as they rate their pain.
If you have dyspnea, treating the condition that is causing it should give you relief. If there is no cure for your underlying condition, your doctor may show you some ways to manage your shortness of breath.
Symptoms of dyspnea
It's somewhat inaccurate to discuss the symptoms of dyspnea since it is already a symptom. But those with dyspnea report these sensations:
Awareness of breath
Dyspnea has been described as an abnormal awareness of breathing. Humans are mostly unaware of the breathing process that keeps them alive. For that reason, being conscious of breathing is an uncomfortable experience that can cause anxiety.
Tightness of the chest
Dyspnea can cause you to feel a constriction in the chest. This tightness can make you feel that you can't get a deep breath and can lead to a smothering sensation. This sensation is sometimes described as air hunger. Some people say they feel that they have to work very hard to take a breath.
Sometimes people with dyspnea report feeling overheated. They may also feel panicky or overwhelmed. For a number of people, dyspnea can be accurately described as a debilitating sensation.
Causes of dyspnea
Some cases of dyspnea are caused by anxiety, and shortness of breath is a common symptom of panic attack. Still, most cases of dyspnea have some physical cause, many of them falling into one of these categories:
It may seem logical that dyspnea stems from problems with the lungs and respiratory system, and that's but not always true. Dyspnea can be triggered by breathing problems such as asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).
If you seek medical help for dyspnea, your doctor will examine your lungs by listening for breath sounds such as wheezes and crackles. Fingers with widened tips, a condition known as clubbing, can also be a sign of respiratory problems. Tests such as chest X-ray and bronchoscopy can give your doctor more information.
Dyspnea can occur when the heart doesn’t beat strongly enough to meet the body's need for oxygenated blood. If you have dyspnea from cardiac problems, you will probably have other signs of heart trouble. You may exhibit reduced heart sounds or irregular heartbeat.
Conditions of the nerves and muscles
Diseases such as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis and myasthenia gravis can cause general bodily weakness that can lead to dyspnea. Another cause is general physical deconditioning, in which the body weakens from inactivity. Deconditioning can result from surgery or serious illness, or it can come from poor lifestyle choices.
When to see the doctor for dyspnea
Exertion, high temperatures, and high elevations can bring on dyspnea even if you are healthy. If you are overweight, you may also get short of breath easily. In these cases, you do not need to see a doctor.
If you have a sudden onset of breathlessness that prevents you from functioning normally, you should seek medical care immediately. Other signs that you need immediate care include:
- Chest pain
- Bluish nails
- Mental confusion
- Swollen ankles
- Difficulty breathing when lying flat
You should also see a doctor if you have symptoms such as fever, chills, and cough with your shortness of breath. You should also see a doctor for less acute cases of dyspnea, although you don't have to go to the emergency room or urgent care.
Dyspnea is usually treated by treating the underlying cause. Also, your doctor may be able to give you medications or inhalers that will help you breathe more easily. If your oxygen levels are low, supplementary oxygen may help.
Lifestyle changes can improve dyspnea. Losing weight can be especially effective, as obesity increases the risk of asthma and other breathing problems. Being overweight can also cause joint pain and other conditions that make moving difficult, leading to deconditioning.
If the underlying cause of your breathlessness cannot be treated, or if the cause is undetermined, you may get relief from learning some breathing techniques. You can do this on your own or as part of a pulmonary rehabilitation program.
It may also be possible to fool your brain into thinking that you are breathing more easily. One way to do this is by using a hand-held fan to direct air toward the face. 72% of the participants across three studies have benefitted from breathing with a fan.
Lung Disease/COPD Resources
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Bass, J. Clinical Methods: The History, Physical, and Laboratory Examinations. Butterworths, 1990.
British Lung Foundation: "Breathlessness."
Cancer.net: "Shortness of Breath or Dyspnea."
Cleveland Clinic Center for Continuing Education: "Dyspnea."
European Respiratory Journal: "Fooling the brain to alleviate dyspnoea."
Mayo Clinic: "Shortness of breath."
Maturitas: "Understanding dyspnea as a complex individual experience."