Shortness of Breath

Shortness of Breath Family Doctor Logo

Overview

What is shortness of breath?

When you are short of breath, you may feel like you can’t get enough air or your chest may feel tight. Sometimes the feeling is worse when you are physically active or when you lie down flat. You may have other symptoms such as a cough, chest pains or a fever. If you are experiencing any of these problems, tell your doctor.

Causes & Risk Factors

What could be causing my shortness of breath?

Shortness of breath can be caused by many things, including the following:

If you are short of breath with a cough and/or fever, you may have a chest infection or pneumonia (say: “new-moan-yuh”). Less common causes of breathing problems are lung cancer, a blood clot in the lungs,air leakage around the lungs and scarring of the lung tissue.

  • Asthma
  • Other lung diseases, including emphysema (say: “em-fa-see-ma”), which is a lung disease that is most often caused by smoking
  • Heart failure
  • Panic attacks

Diagnosis

What tests will my doctor perform?

Your doctor can help find the cause of your breathing problem by asking you questions about your symptoms and performing a physical exam. Your doctor also may order some tests.

To find the cause of your shortness of breath, your doctor may order a chest X-ray. He or she may also order an electrocardiogram (also called an ECG). During this test, your doctor will have you lie down so your heart can be monitored. The ECG machine creates a picture, or tracing, that shows your heart’s electrical signals. You may need to have a computerized tomography (CT) scan, which is another type of X-ray. Your doctor may measure the strength of your breathing (called a spirometer) and the oxygen level in your blood. You also may need to have a blood test.

Treatment

What can I do to improve my breathing?

Your doctor will treat the cause of your breathing problem.To help your treatment, if you smoke, you need to stop. Ask your doctor forhelp. Also, avoid breathing chemicals that can bother your lungs, such as fumes from paint and car exhaust. If your doctor says it’s okay, you should try to get plenty of exercise.

Primatene Mist Inhaler discontinued

Primatene Mist Inhaler, an over-the-counter asthma inhaler, was discontinued December 31, 2011. If you currently use Primatene Mist Inhaler, it’s safe to continue using it as long as it hasn’t expired. Talk to your doctor about switching to a different medicine to treat your asthma. For more information, visit the U.S. Food and Drug Administration website.

Questions

Questions to Ask Your Doctor

  • What is the likely cause of my shortness of breath?
  • Do I need any tests to help determine the cause of my shortness of breath?
  • Is shortness of breath a sign of a more serious problem?
  • Is it safe for me to exercise? What kind of exercise can I do?
  • Based on the cause of my shortness of breath, what’s the best treatment option?
  • What lifestyle changes can I make at home to help relieve my symptoms?

Resources