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What Could Shortness of Breath Mean? Causes and Diagnosis

What is Shortness of Breath/Dyspnea?

Inhaling and exhaling are body’s natural cycles which do not require any exemption of extra energy. However, this is not the case with someone experiencing Dyspnea. Dyspnea or shortness of breath is a condition in which a person experiences strenuous breathing. It is when the breathing becomes a labored task. It may be closely related to the feeling of suffocation.

Shortness of Breath could either be temporary or be a permanent problem. Temporary dyspnea could be due to exercise or exertion. It also occurs to a few people when they decide to go at higher altitudes, in mountainous regions. At such places, the density of oxygen in air is fairly less than that at sea level and thus, people suffering with shortness of breath in particular face breathing difficulties.

Causes of Shortness of Breath/Dyspnea:

Short- term Dyspnea is caused due to physical exertion of any kind. That may be running, swimming quickly, exercising, etc. Shortness of Breath is also a symptom of various other diseases. These diseases are mainly pulmonary or lung disease. When a person experiences sudden shortness of breath, it is to be brought to the immediate attention of the doctor as it may be a symptom of the following disorders:

  1. Heart Failure:

Inadequate supply of blood to the heart or the disorder on the left side can cause acute dyspnea.

  1. Low Blood Pressure:

Low blood pressure exerts a considerable strain on the heart and thus induce acute dyspnea.

  1. Pneumonia:

It is the inflammation of lung caused due to bacterial or viral infection. This will naturally impair the respiratory capacity of the body leading to shortness of breath.

  1. Carbon Monoxide poisoning:

Inhaling too much of Carbon Monoxide causes the compound to be attached to the hemoglobin present in the red blood cells of the blood. When this happens, it impairs the oxygen carrying capacity of the blood thus leading to dyspnea.

  1. Stress or anxiety:

Stress or anxiety causes the body to breath more oxygen than normal which may exert a strain upon the breathing capacity of a person thus causing shortness of breath.

  1. Asthma:

Asthma is a medical condition in which the pathways carrying oxygen to and fro from your lungs become narrow as they swell up. This could be a variety of reasons ranging from allergy to smoking habits.

Chronic Dyspnea/ Shortness of Breath

When dyspnea is not a sudden occurrence and exists for a fairly long period of time which may be around for a month or so, it can be classified as a chronic condition and may be responsible for the following diseases:

  1. Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) including chronic bronchitis and emphysema:

These include a lung condition in which the lungs become highly inflammatory causing obstructed air flow. The symptoms include difficulty in breathing, coughnig up blood, presence of mucus (sputum) and wheezing.

Bronchitis is the inflammation of the bronchial tubes of the lungs.

  1. Interstitial lung disease (scarring of lung tissue):

This is a condition in which scars appear on the lung tissue thus causing severe shortness of breath. This condition is fairly perpetual.

  1. Poor physical conditioning:

Shortness of Breath automatically leads to difficulty in sleep patters, irritability, poor food habits and a disturbed life cycle. This thus could lead to poor physical conditioning.

  1. Obesity:

Being obese has a lot of side effects. Having extra weight exerts pressures on the muscles of the chest and abdomen thus making it difficult to breath. Apart from that, obesity is also a trigger for various other health issues like high blood pressure, heart diseases, cholesterol which lead to breathing difficulties.

  1. Heart Disease:

Shortness of breath is a potent indicator of possible heart disease apart from chest pain. Sometimes, a person may not experience any painful condition in the chest at all. In such conditions, dyspnea is what one must look for as a symptom. Women mostly do not experience chest pain.

Doctors try to classify the shortness of breath if it is occurring when the body is at rest or due to any physical exertion or exercise. They also try to identify the frequency of this condition-if the condition is persistent or occasional. The rate at which dyspnea strikes is also taken into account while ascertaining the cause of shortness of breath.

Other diseases associated with shortness of breath congestive heart failure, arrhythmia, allergic reaction, anaphylaxis and hypertension.

Diagnosis of Shortness of Breath/Dyspnea:

The doctor examines the patient’s history for presence of Gastroesophagal Reflux disease (GERD), asthma or other such allergic conditions. The smoking habits of the patient are also taken into consideration. The position of the body is also taken into account. To quote an example, when a patient experiences dyspnea when in sitting position it is called platypnea and indicates the possibility of a liver disease. Dyspnea when experienced while a patient is lying down is called orthopnea and is usually associated with heart disease. The condition which forces the patient to wake up from sleep gasping for breath is called Paroxysmal nocturnal Dyspnea (PND). This condition may be indicative of malfunction of the left ventricle of the heart, hypertension or narrowing of the mitral valve.

Physical Examination for Shortness of Breath/Dyspnea:

The doctor examines the chest of the patient to check the rate and depth of breathing, the effort required to breath, the condition of the muscles involved in breathing and any signs of deformities or trauma. The patient’s condition is checked for wheezing, coughing, stridor or for any signs of fluids in the lungs. The doctor examines the presence of fever for diseases like pneumonia, or for any heart disease.

Diagnostic Tests for Shortness of Breath/Dyspnea:

The chest x-ray is used to make basic examinations of the condition of the chest wall. Electrocardiogram is also used for more accurate analysis of the position of diaphragm, possibility of rib problems and irregular heartbeat. Specialized Tests include CT scan conducted for examination of the lungs for emphysema and acute bronchitis.

When to See a Doctor:

Since this is a fairly uncomfortable condition and hinders normal life, it may be brought to the attention of your doctor at the earliest. Dyspnea could only be a symptom of a huger health problem as you may have read in the list above, and so, the earlier you bring it to the attention of your doctor, the easier it will be to start the treatment for the same. Some of the diseases like heart failure have symptom of shortness of breath when the person is lying down. Shortness of breath with fever, cold and cough could be indicative of pneumonia. Most of these diseases are fatal to the life if not paid attention to.

Shabnam Vandeliwala

Venturing into writing is my second most admired hobby after litigating in courts. An advocate by profession, writing gives me immense sense of satisfaction especially in the time that I'm free from other work.

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