Shortness of Breath: Why Is It Happening and How Do I Manage It?

If you have experienced shortness of breath, you know that it can be a frightening sensation. Shortness of breath, also called dyspnea, is the inability to get enough air, and while it can be caused by any number of things—from strenuous exercise and extreme temperatures to COPD, asthma and other breathing difficulties—it should be taken seriously. 

I Feel Short of Breath: What Should I Do?

If you realize, “Sometimes, I feel short of breath,” you might not know what to do about it. First, it is important to understand what shortness of breath is and what it can feel like. Shortness of breath is the sensation of feeling hungry for air, or like you cannot get enough air. This feeling is extremely uncomfortable and can be quite scary, causing significant anxiety and panic in many people. 

So, what exactly does shortness of breath feel like? People describe shortness of breath as[1]:

  • A feeling of tightness or heaviness in the chest
  • Gasping for air
  • The feeling that you might suffocate
  • A hunger for air
  • Struggling to breathe
  • Breathlessness

Obviously, none of these descriptions sound pleasant, and shortness of breath can indeed be a terrifying experience. What should you do, then, if you find yourself gasping and thinking, “I feel short of breath”?

First, it is important to remain as calm as possible. Panic and anxiety can make your breathlessness worse, and staying calm helps you focus on finding your breath. If you feel short of breath, stop what you are doing, sit down and try to breathe slowly into your belly, in through your nose and out through pursed lips. Read on for specific directions on breathing exercises to try.

If you are unable to get your shortness of breath under control on your own, or if your shortness of breath comes on suddenly or worsens suddenly, you should seek medical help right away.

Why Do I Feel Short of Breath?

Shortness of breath can be caused by a variety of different factors and has the potential to be experienced by almost anyone. Generally speaking, healthy people can experience shortness of breath as a result of extreme temperatures, high altitudes, obesity and strenuous exercise.[1] Typically, patients experiencing shortness of breath for these reasons can relieve the symptoms by resting and getting out of environments that caused their breathlessness. However, if these are not the causes of shortness of breath in people who appear otherwise healthy, or the typical rest and removal treatment no longer works, there is likely a medical issue causing the shortness of breath. A number of different medical conditions can cause shortness of breath, including asthma, COPD, COVID-19, heart problems, lung problems, pneumonia, severe allergic reactions and more.[1] 

The majority of issues causing a sudden onset of shortness of breath require immediate medical attention and should be taken extremely seriously. If you experience shortness of breath that is brand new and sudden, seek medical help right away. Patients experiencing chronic or ongoing shortness of breath also need medical attention, particularly if it is not well controlled or worsens over time. If you go from thinking “Sometimes I feel short of breath” to “I feel short of breath frequently,” see your doctor. 

When to Seek Medical Care for Shortness of Breath

It is important to know the difference between when you need emergency medical care and when you should make an appointment with your doctor. This is an important distinction for people who have new shortness of breath, but it is also helpful information for people with chronic shortness of breath, too. Remember to ask yourself, “Why do I feel short of breath?” The answer may help you decide how serious the situation is and whether you can manage your symptoms yourself. 

Here’s when to call 911 or head to the emergency department, and when to call your doctor for your shortness of breath.[1] 

Call 911 or go to the emergency department if your shortness of breath:

  • Is severe and comes on suddenly and unexpectedly
  • Affects your ability to function
  • Is accompanied by bluish lips or nail beds, chest pain, fainting, nausea or a change in mental state

See your doctor if your shortness of breath:

  • Worsens or becomes more frequent
  • Cannot be managed with previously effective treatments
  • Is accompanied by swelling in the feet or lower legs
  • Is accompanied by fever, chills and cough
  • Is accompanied by wheezing
  • Makes it difficult to breathe when you lie down

If you are in doubt about what to do, call your doctor’s office or nurse line to ask a medical professional how to proceed. If it feels like an emergency situation, treat it as one.

Once in your doctor’s care, they will likely administer a number of tests to assess your lungs, blood oxygen, oxygen saturation and heart health. You may also be asked to complete some pulmonary function tests to see how well your lungs work. Depending on the results, your doctor will decide how best to treat your shortness of breath and underlying causes. 

10 Tips for Managing Shortness of Breath

For many people with chronic lung diseases, lung conditions, heart conditions or other breathing difficulties, shortness of breath is common and can be chronic. As such, if you know shortness of breath will be a part of your life, it is important to learn what you should do when shortness of breath strikes. Asking, “Why do I feel short of breath?” is essential to knowing the right way to treat it. Make sure you discuss management strategies with your health care team to ensure you know the right treatments for you. 

These are some general tips to help you manage shortness of breath.

  • Stop smoking. If you experience shortness of breath of any kind, stop smoking right away. Smoking exacerbates shortness of breath, making chronic conditions worse over time and increasing your risk of developing other illnesses.[2] Quitting smoking can stop lung damage and respiratory illnesses from progressing any further, easing your shortness of breath.
  • Follow doctor’s orders. Follow whatever treatment plan your doctor prescribes. Use medications as directed and participate in any other parts of treatment—including diet changes, exercise, pulmonary rehabilitation, rest and oxygen therapy—as prescribed by your health care team. Following doctor’s orders correctly will provide you with the intended benefits, and help you and your doctor discover whether treatment plans need to be adjusted along the way.  
  • Remain calm. As hard as it can be, remaining calm while feeling short of breath can make the difference between panicking and breathing through it. Tell yourself, “Sometimes I feel short of breath, and I feel short of breath right now, but I know what to do.” Studies show that mindful breathing is effective for rapidly reducing dyspnea in people with asthma, COPD and lung cancer.[3] 
  • Incorporate moderate exercise. As counterintuitive as it seems, moderate exercise can improve shortness of breath over time. Exercise helps the lungs and heart grow stronger and work more efficiently, thereby delivering more oxygen to your bloodstream and tissues.[4] Talk to your doctor before beginning any exercise regimen, as they may recommend beginning with intermittent exercise or using other strategies, like pursed-lip breathing or braced arms, to make it easier to breathe.[5]
  • Breathe through it. Learning the right breathing techniques, like pursed-lip breathing, can help you ease shortness of breath in the moment. However, techniques like diaphragmatic breathing can also help reduce shortness of breath over time by teaching you to breathe more effectively.[6]
  • Avoid lung and airway irritants. The more exposure you have to lung and airway irritants, like secondhand smoke, pollution and allergens, the more likely you are to experience shortness of breath. Exposure can even worsen your symptoms over time. Avoid irritants to minimize the impact on your respiratory health.
  • Eat carefully. Many people do not realize that foods and beverages that cause bloating or gas can make shortness of breath worse by increasing pressure on the diaphragm.[7] Be aware of foods with nitrates and allergens, and foods that increase mucus production, too.
  • Avoid extreme temperatures. Any extreme temperatures, high humidity or rapid changes in temperature can aggravate shortness of breath. Do your best to avoid these extremes when possible.
  • Know what to do. It can help to think through what to do when you experience shortness of breath so that you are prepared if panic takes over. Practice your breathing techniques, work on mindfulness and trust your treatments. Remember to repeat the words, “I feel short of breath right now, but I know what to do.”
  • Use oxygen therapy. Many people who experience shortness of breath get significant relief from oxygen therapy. If you are not currently using oxygen therapy, ask your doctor whether it could be right for you and contact Inogen for information about our oxygen concentrators. If you already use oxygen therapy, but still experience shortness of breath, talk to your doctor about adjusting your prescription or, if you use high-flow continuous oxygen, incorporating the Inogen Tidal Assist Ventilator. The Inogen TAV® System is an advanced respiratory assist device that can deliver higher oxygen flow and pressure than traditional oxygen therapy with the powerful nasal pillow interface. This small device works with your high flow oxygen tank or compatible home oxygen concentrator to provide a boost of oxygen right when you need it. The Inogen TAV has been shown to reduce shortness of breath, improve oxygen saturation and improve exercise tolerance while reducing exertion.

 

 

Sources 

[1] “Shortness of Breath.” Mayo Clinic, Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research, 13 June 2020, www.mayoclinic.org/symptoms/shortness-of-breath/basics/definition/sym-20050890

[2] “Smoking and Respiratory Diseases.” Johns Hopkins Medicine | Health, Johns Hopkins Medicine, 23 Sept. 2020, www.hopkinsmedicine.org/health/conditions-and-diseases/smoking-and-respiratory-diseases

[3] Tan, Seng-Beng, et al. “The Effect of 20-Minute Mindful Breathing on the Rapid Reduction of Dyspnea at Rest in Patients With Lung Diseases: A Randomized Controlled Trial.” Journal of Pain and Symptom Management, U.S. National Library of Medicine, 24 Jan. 2019, pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/30684635/

[4] “Exercise and Lung Health.” American Lung Association, American Lung Association, 13 July 2020, www.lung.org/lung-health-diseases/wellness/exercise-and-lung-health

[5] “Your Lungs and Exercise.” Breathe (Sheffield, England), European Respiratory Society, Mar. 2016, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4818249/

[6] “Breathing Exercises.” American Lung Association, American Lung Association, 27 May 2020, www.lung.org/lung-health-diseases/wellness/breathing-exercises

[7] “Asthma and Nutrition: How Food Affects Your Lungs.” American Lung Association, American Lung Association, 10 July 2018, www.lung.org/blog/asthma-and-nutrition.

9 thoughts on “Shortness of Breath: Why Is It Happening and How Do I Manage It?”

  1. Avatar Dian Schlegel says:

    Thanks for the re-post. Could not open the first one, obviously others had a problem too.

    Thanks, Dian

    1. Avatar Geralyn says:

      Geez, that's unelaievlbbe. Kudos and such.

  2. Avatar Snezana says:

    Howdy very nice blog!! Man .. Excellent .. Superb .. I will bookmark your site and take the feeds aiaitdondlly?I am glad to find so many useful information right here within the submit, we need develop more strategies in this regard, thank you for sharing. . . . . .

  3. Avatar Amanda Rae Lockwood says:

    Really good advice do as they recommend and will almost guarantee that you will start feeling better.

  4. Avatar Amanda Rae Lockwood says:

    COPD IS NO FUN ,YOUR QUALITY OF LIFE IS GONE.

  5. Avatar Theresa McGuire says:

    Good advice. I was just diagnosed so just beginning treatment. I was never a smoker but grew up with smokers and most likely have damage from pesticides in orchards as a young child. I am 72 and live alone. I hope to implement some of this advice although even the 15minutes of exercise will take some time at this point. But perhaps once the meds have a chance to kick in! For now I do some work in my home and pant.

  6. Avatar Sandy Howard says:

    Please please please Iam begging whoever is reading this please STOP dont smoke. Iam 63 cant breathe am constantly tired and honestly feel and have NIGHTMARES Iam going to die. Started smoking as a young teen stupid dam cigarettes. Wanted to fit in look cool blah blah blah and now Iam so so sorry. I have no family everyone is gone my children have made very poor decisions will never see them again and have been left to raise my now 5 year old grandaughter. She has no Father no Mother and now…you get the picture. Iam so sorry…….

  7. Avatar Becky says:

    I am 60 and feel the same.I am having such a hard time,wish I'd never seen a cigarette.

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