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