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Dyspnea – the medical term for shortness of breath – can be either acute, occurring suddenly, or chronic, persisting over a long period of time. It is an extremely common symptom, occurring in 1 out of every 4 people who visit their doctor’s office. Despite its commonality, the quality of dyspnea seems to vary from person to person with no single definition embodying all its characteristics.
Causes of dyspnea involve interaction between several different systems in your body, including the respiratory and cardiovascular systems. The following table lists some of the more common causes of dyspnea by organ system:
Acute exacerbation of COPD and other obstructive lung diseases
|Gastrointestinal/Hepatic||Acute liver failure||
|Renal (Kidneys)||Acute renal failure||
Lesions to high cervical spine
Trauma to phrenic nerve
Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (Lou Gehrig’s disease)
There is an exhaustive list of signs and symptoms that may accompany dyspnea. For the purpose of this article, only the most common are listed below:
The most common initial diagnostic test for assessing dyspnea is a chest X-ray. Although this test primarily targets the lungs, it also helps doctors evaluate the cardiovascular system, chest wall, pleura (membrane lining the lungs), mediastinum (membranous partition between the lungs) and upper abdomen.
Other tests that may be ordered to help evaluate the underlying cause of dyspnea include:
There are two important aspects to the management of dyspnea: treatment of the underlying disorder and relief of symptoms. Management of the underlying disorder depends upon what the underlying disorder is. Management of symptoms is outlined below.
Management of symptoms
First and foremost, symptomatic relief of dyspnea involves making sure the patient is breathing well enough to support their oxygen needs. If not, then oxygen therapy should be initiated. If the patient is unable to sufficiently breathe on their own, then either non-invasive positive pressure ventilation (NIPPV) or intubation (tube inserted down the throat) and artificial ventilation will be necessary.
Additional measures that may be used in the symptomatic relief of dyspnea include:
If you think you have dyspnea and have not yet been to the doctor, make an appointment as soon as possible. In some cases, dyspnea can be an important warning sign that something serious is going on.
 Cleveland Clinic. Dyspnea. Published July, 2015.