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Shortness of Breath – Symptoms, Causes, Prevention and Treatment

What Is Shortness of Breath?

Shortness of breath or dyspnea, also known as air hunger, is an uncomfortable condition when you feel you are not getting enough oxygen into your lungs, making it hard for you to breathe.

Although in most cases, this condition is short-term, if symptoms last for long, you should seek medical attention immediately.

More about Shortness of Breath

A healthy adult inhales and exhales around 20 times/minute, making it about 30,000 breaths/day. If you have had an intense workout session or got a common cold, these figures are likely to change  a bit. However, shortness of breath may indicate severe and chronic health complications otherwise.

Although it is a common health concern, you should not ignore it if it persists. As per the Cleveland Clinic Center for Continuing Education (CME), one in every four individuals visiting a clinic experiences shortness of breath.

You are likely to experience shortness of breath due to overexertion, performing excessive physical activities, or residing in a high-altitude area. It can also indicate an underlying health condition. 

What Are the Symptoms of Shortness of Breath?

You are likely to experience the following symptoms if you have dyspnea:

What Are The Causes of Shortness of Breath?

Many health conditions and concerning scenarios can lead to shortness of breath. Here is a list of some of the most common causes of dyspnea (short-term):

The causes of long-term shortness of breath include the following

When Should You See Your Doctor?

You must ensure not to ignore shortness of breath as it might indicate a more severe problem. Consult your doctor if you experience the following:

  • Your symptoms persist or get worse.
  • You do not get relief even after using an inhaler.
  • You find it hard to breathe when lying flat.
  • Your ankles and feet are swollen.
  • You produce a gasping or wheezing sound while breathing.
  • You have a fever.
  • You experience chills.

How Can You Prevent Experiencing Shortness of Breath?

If you have dyspnea, you can follow the preventive measure given below to ensure relief while improving your overall health:

  • If you smoke, you should quit
  • Make sure to avoid second-hand smoke as much as possible.
  • Try avoiding exposure to environmental triggers, including wood smoke, fumes, pollutants, etc.
  • If you are obese or overweight, try losing weight. It can help make your respiratory and cardiovascular system strong while reducing a great deal of stress on your lungs and the heart.
  • Take your time when performing strenuous activities so that you do not stress yourself too much.
  • If possible, it is also wise to reduce exercise when breathless .

What are the Possible Complications of Shortness of Breath?

The possible complications of shortness of breath include the following:

  • Shortness of breath can lead to hypoxemia or hypoxia (conditions related to low levels of oxygen in the blood). These conditions can cause a decrease in the level of consciousness followed by other severe health complications.
  • If you have severe dyspnea and it stays for a significant period, you might be at risk of suffering permanent or temporary cognitive impairment.

What are the Treatment Options for Shortness of Breath?

Your doctor will likely decide on a treatment plan for you, depending on certain crucial factors. It includes your symptoms, underlying conditions, and the severity of the problem. 

Some of the widely used treatment options include the following:

  • If you experience shortness of breath because of overexertion or strenuous physical activities, there is nothing to worry about. You will be able to breathe normally once you stop and rest for some time.
  • If you have more severe breathing problems, you might need supplemental oxygen to feel better. 
  • If you have COPD or asthma, your doctor is likely to recommend rescue inhalers and bronchodilators. Also, your doctor will talk to you and decide on an individual treatment plan to help you prevent severe bouts of dyspnea. 
  • Breathing issues due to COPD are likely to improve with breathing exercises like pursed-lip breathing, muscle strengthening, etc.
  • If your doctor diagnoses that you have bacterial pneumonia, he/she is likely to prescribe antibiotics to help you find relief.
  • Other medications that your doctor is likely to recommend may include anti-anxiety medicines and NSAIDs.
  • Treatment depends on the underlying cause 

Conclusion

Shortness of breath is not an issue you should ignore. It is treatable if the underlying cause is diagnosed early. However, leaving it untreated can lead to life-threatening complications. 

If your doctor gets to identify the root cause of the problem, they can help improve the symptoms and treat the conditions. E.g., non-severe asthma, pneumonia, etc.

However, some breathing problems, including COPD, heart failure, or severe asthma, are critical and need immediate medical attention. If medical help reaches you on time, you can improve your outlook and lead a healthy life.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

Do hypoxemia and hypoxia mean the same thing?

Both hypoxemia and hypoxia are related to the level of oxygen in your body. Also, as both these terms look alike (spelling and pronunciation-wise), people almost always confuse the two to be different terms with the same meaning. Although hypoxemia and hypoxia can co-occur in your body, these conditions are different. The former means the oxygen content in the blood is low, while the latter means oxygen supply to the bodily tissues is low.

What postures can help you with shortness of breath?

Two of the best positions that can help you find relief when you experience shortness of breath are:

  • Lie on your side and keep a pillow between your legs. Make sure to keep your head in a raised position using a cushion(s) while keeping your backside aligned straight with the bed.
  • Lie on your back and keep your head raised while keeping your knees bent. You can do it by placing a pillow under your knees. 

Both these postures allow your airways and body to relax. It makes breathing easy and less forced. However, make sure to visit your doctor if the problem persists.

What Symptoms Indicate That Your Blood Oxygen Levels May Be Low?

The following are the signs and symptoms of low oxygen levels in the blood:

What Will Likely Happen If You Leave Hypoxemia Untreated?

Hypoxemia, when left untreated, can compromise your brain and heart health. It affects your brain, causing seizures and altered consciousness, and heart issues might include congestive heart failure, irregular heartbeats, and heart attack.

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