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What Is Shortness of Breath?

Shortness of breath, also called dyspnea, is the inability to get enough air. It is not uncommon for it to create a feeling of panic and anxiety as you struggle for breath. Shortness of breath is often accompanied by a tightening or heavy sensation in the chest, along with gasping or hungering for air, and it can feel as though you are going to suffocate. Needless to say, feeling shortness of breath causes significant discomfort, and can be quite a frightening experience. Discovering the reasons for shortness of breath in your life can help alleviate the fear and will ultimately help you find the right shortness of breath treatment for you.[1,2]


So, what causes shortness of breath? COPD, or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, causes damage to the lungs, which makes it more difficult to breathe. People with COPD must exert more effort to inhale and exhale air properly, which can result in feeling short of breath. Additionally, COPD is associated with both emphysema and chronic bronchitis, both of which cause shortness of breath. The shortness of breath associated with emphysema results from damage to the air sacs in the lungs, in which either the walls that separate the air sacs are destroyed or they lose their stretchiness. Chronic bronchitis, on the other hand, causes shortness of breath because airways become partly blocked by irritation that causes inflammation and swelling, and because the lungs produce excess mucus. COPD is just one of many shortness of breath causes, but regardless of what causes shortness of breath, it can be a terrifying feeling and one that should be managed and treated.

Unfortunately, shortness of breath and COPD go hand-in-hand. However, it can be helpful to know that breathing through the discomfort of feeling short of breath will not cause further damage.[6] In fact, regardless of the reasons for shortness of breath, if you know the breathing techniques to use when you are experiencing shortness of breath, you can actually improve your body’s ability to intake air properly. 


What causes shortness of breath to increase in COPD? If you are feeling short of breath more often than normal, or experiencing increased shortness of breath symptoms, these may be signs of COPD flare-up. Increased shortness of breath can also indicate respiratory infections, pneumonia or flu, all of which are known reasons for shortness of breath and can lead to COPD exacerbation and the possibility of hospitalization. If you are experiencing more shortness of breath than usual, contact your doctor right away to ensure that your symptoms do not worsen and to avoid complications if possible. From there, ask about shortness of breath treatment.[6]


Based on what causes shortness of breath, there are a variety of ways to treat shortness of breath, depending on the severity of your symptoms and the stage of your COPD. You may be prescribed medication, like bronchodilators or glucocorticosteroids, as shortness of breath treatment helps open your airways and makes it easier to breathe. Make sure you take your medication as directed to get the maximum therapeutic benefits. Your doctor may also prescribe pulmonary rehabilitation for shortness of breath treatment to help you learn to breathe and cough more effectively, as well as help you learn stretching and strengthening exercises that help you increase your flexibility and stamina while reducing shortness of breath. You may also be prescribed oxygen therapy for shortness of breath treatment, particularly while you are active, in order to help increase your oxygen intake so you are not feeling short of breath when you are active. Your doctor can help you choose the right shortness of breath treatment to help minimize all of your symptoms, including feeling short of breath.


Supplemental oxygen can help improve shortness of breath and COPD symptoms in some patients. Your doctor will determine whether it is the right shortness of breath treatment for you. In many cases, oxygen therapy helps increase oxygen intake, which can reduce the frequency of feeling short of breath, as well as reducing shortness of breath symptoms. Oxygen therapy can also help improve your ability to remain active, increasing your stamina and helping you feel more alert. It is important to understand that your health care providers prescribe oxygen therapy to help treat the symptoms of your COPD, but it will not completely eliminate shortness of breath. With COPD, your reasons for shortness of breath symptoms cannot be eliminated, and oxygen therapy cannot stop your COPD from progressing. However, it can help you manage your disease and treat shortness of breath symptoms so you are able to live more normally. If your shortness of breath and COPD are impacting your ability to live a full life, ask your health care team about oxygen therapy today. If you have other shortness of breath causes besides COPD, it is still helpful to talk to your doctor about whether oxygen therapy could be the shortness of breath treatment for you.

Wondering how oxygen therapy will impact your ability to take part in your regular activities and social life? Inogen offers portable oxygen concentrators that may be a single solution for oxygen at home or away, day or night. Our small, lightweight portable oxygen concentrators allow you to get the supplemental oxygen you need, for better independence, freedom and mobility.

No matter what causes shortness of breath for you, your reasons for shortness of breath should not hold you back forever. Whether you have COPD or another breathing difficulty, see your doctor to discuss your shortness of breath causes and the right shortness of breath treatment for you. Contact Inogen today and find how our portable oxygen concentrators may improve your quality of life by becoming your shortness of breath treatment. 


Is shortness of breath a lung problem?

Most of the time, shortness of breath is a sign that your lungs or your heart are not working as they should. Shortness of breath usually indicates that you are not getting the oxygen you need or that your body is not properly eliminating carbon dioxide. That problem can originate in the lungs, or it can be a problem with how your heart is working or circulating your blood. However, other conditions can cause shortness of breath, too, including anemia, anaphylaxis, anxiety, broken ribs, choking, obesity and more.[1]  See your doctor to determine the reasons for shortness of breath that you’re experiencing.

What causes shortness of breath most often?

The most common chronic, or long-term, shortness of breath causes are asthma, COPD, heart problems, lung disease or obesity.[1] The most common acute, or sudden, shortness of breath causes are allergic reactions, asthma attacks, blockage in the respiratory tract from choking or mucus, blood clots in the lungs, heart attack or heart failure, pregnancy or respiratory infections.[2]

Can muscle pain cause shortness of breath?

Certain muscle pain, like pain in your back or in your intercostal muscles between your ribs, can make you feel short of breath. If it hurts to breathe, you may find yourself taking shallow breaths, leaving you feeling breathless. This may be due to a muscle strain, in which case you may need to complete some gentle stretching, ice and heat therapy or even breathing therapy to help ease your discomfort.[3,4] If you’re struggling with back pain and breathing correctly, see your doctor as there may be more going on. If you have shortness of breath and back pain in addition to other symptoms like chest pain, dizziness, fainting, nausea or sweating, contact your doctor right away. These could be signs of pneumonia, heart problems, gallbladder disease or pulmonary embolism.[5] Ultimately, the reasons for shortness of breath and back pain may be relatively minor, but it is a good idea to take shortness of breath seriously.

When should I be concerned about shortness of breath?

Generally speaking, if your shortness of breath is frequent and/or keeps you from participating in your regular daily activities, you should see your doctor. For people with COPD and other chronic illnesses, an increase in shortness of breath could be a sign that your illness is progressing. This means you may need to look into additional shortness of breath treatment. If your shortness of breath comes on suddenly, see your doctor right away as it could be a sign of a serious heart or lung problem, or something else.

How do I get rid of my shortness of breath?

First, you need to establish your shortness of breath causes so that you know why you are experiencing this symptom. Once you know the reasons for shortness of breath, you can move toward the right shortness of breath treatment for you. Your options could differ significantly, depending on the cause of your breathlessness. However, learning some breathing techniques, like pursed-lip breathing and diaphragmatic breathing, can almost always help when you are struggling to breathe effectively.[3]


  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. Schwartzstein, Richard M. “Patient Education: Shortness of Breath (Dyspnea) (Beyond the Basics).” UpToDate, UpToDate, Inc., 9 June 2020, www.uptodate.com/contents/shortness-of-breath-dyspnea-beyond-the-basics.
  3. Axtell, Beth. “How to Identify and Treat an Intercostal Muscle Strain.” Healthline, Healthline Media, 7 Mar. 2019, www.healthline.com/health/kidney-disease/chronic-kidney-disease-and-covid#getting-ckd-care.
  4. Brennan, Dan. “Muscle Cramps Or Spasms (Painful) And Shortness Of Breath.” MedicineNet, MedicineNet, 15 June 2020, www.medicinenet.com/muscle_cramps_shortness_of_breath/multisymptoms.htm.
  5. Galan, Nicole. “Back Pain and Shortness of Breath: 10 Causes.” Medical News Today, MediLexicon International, 5 Feb. 2019, www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/324364#pneumonia.
  6. “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.


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