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Main causes for shortness of breath

Shortness of breath is also clinically known as dyspnea and is characterized by difficulty in getting air to the lungs, which can happen due to excessive physical activity, anxiety, nervousness, bronchitis or asthma, in addition to other more serious situations that should be investigated by the doctor.

When shortness of breath appears, you should sit and try to calm down, if the feeling of shortness of breath does not improve within half an hour or, worsens, you should go to the emergency room.

Main causes for shortness of breath

Main causes for Dyspnea

Some of the main causes or diseases that can cause shortness of breath are:

1. Stress and anxiety

Emotional reasons are the most frequent causes for shortness of breath in healthy people. In anxiety cases, excessive stress or even in a panic attack, the individual may have trouble breathing.

What to do: Taking a soothing tea like chamomile or valerian capsules are good choices, but it is also important to seek psychological help to deal with problems, so as not to harm your health. See some tea recipes that can help you calm down.

2. Excessive physical activity

People who are not accustomed to practicing physical activity may feel short of breath when starting any type of activity, but especially when walking or running due to lack of physical conditioning. Overweight people are the most affected, but shortness of breath can also happen in people within the ideal weight.

What to do: In this case, it is enough to continue practicing physical activity regularly so that the heart and the breathing gets use to the physical effort.

3. Pregnancy

Shortness of breath is common after 26 weeks of gestation due to the growth of the belly, which compresses the diaphragm, with less space for the lungs.

What to do: You should sit comfortably in a chair, closing your eyes and concentrating on your own breath, trying to inhale and exhale deeply and slowly. Using pillows and cushions can be a good strategy for better sleep.

4. Heart diseases

Heart disease, such as heart failure or pericarditis, causes shortness of breath when making efforts such as getting out of bed or climbing stairs. Usually people with this condition report feeling suffocated or urgency in breathing. Usually the individual also has chest pain, like angina, weeks or months before they start feeling short of breath. See more symptoms of heart disease.

What to do: You should follow the treatment indicated by your doctor, which is usually done with the use of medication.

5. Respiratory diseases

The flu and a cold, especially when a person is has a lot of phlegm can cause shortness of breath and coughing. But certain diseases like asthma, bronchitis, pneumonia, pulmonary edema, pneumothorax can also cause a feeling of shortness of breath. The following are the main respiratory diseases that cause this symptom:

  • Asthma: shortness of breath starts suddenly, may feel suffocated or the chest feels tight, and signs such as coughing and prolonged expiration may be present;
  • Bronchitis: shortness of breath is directly related to phlegm in the airways or lungs;
  • COPD: shortness of breath starts very slowly and gets worse with the passing of days, usually affects people with bronchitis or emphysema. There is a strong cough with phlegm and prolonged expiration;
  • Pneumonia: shortness of breath begins gradually and is gets worse. There is also pain in the back or lung when breathing, fever and cough;
  • Pneumothorax: shortness of breath begins suddenly and there is also pain in the back or lung when breathing;
  • Embolism: shortness of breath begins suddenly, especially affecting people who have had recent surgery, who have been resting or in the women who take the pill. Cough, chest pain, and fainting may also occur.

What to do: If you have a flu or cold you can take syrups to loosen the phlegm and start breathing more easily. In more serious diseases, you should follow the doctor's indicated treatment, which can be done using medication and respiratory therapy.

6. Small object in the airways

Shortness of breath begins suddenly, while eating or there is a feeling that something is in the nose or throat. There is usually some sound when breathing or it may be impossible to talk or cough, and babies and children are most affected, although it may also happen in bed-dwellers.

What to do: When the object is in the nose or can be easily removed from the mouth, one can try to remove it very carefully using forceps. However, it is safer to put the person on their side to clear their airways and when it is not possible to identify what is making breathing difficult, one should go to the ER.

7. Allergic reactions

In allergic reactions, shortness of breath starts suddenly after taking medication, eating something that the person is allergic to or being bitten by an insect.

  • What to do: People with severe allergy symptoms usually have an injection of adrenaline to be used in an emergency. If this is the case, it should be applied immediately, and the doctor should be called. When the person does not have this injection, this may indicate that the doctor has not identified any serious allergic reaction symptoms. In that case you should call an ambulance or take the person to the ER immediately.\

8. Obesity 

Being overweight and obesity can also cause shortness of breath when lying down or sleeping because the weight decreases the lungs' ability to expand during air intake.

What to do: In order to breathe better, with less effort, you can use more pillows to sleep, but it is very important to lose weight, so you should be accompanied by a nutritionist.

9. Neuromuscular diseases

Myasthenia gravis and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis can also cause shortness of breath due to weakness in the breathing muscles.

What to do: Follow your doctor's prescribed drug treatment and keep him or her informed of how often the shortness of breath arises because you may need to change the medication or adjust your dose.

10. Paroxysmal nocturnal dyspnea

This is one of the common causes of shortness of breath at night, while sleeping. It causes difficulty in sleeping, which is usually caused by heart problems or respiratory diseases such as chronic bronchitis or asthma.

What to do: In these cases, a medical appointment is recommended, as it may be necessary to perform some laboratory tests to identify the disease and thus initiate appropriate treatment.

What to do immediately if you feel shortness of breath

In case of shortness of breath, the first step is to stay calm and sit comfortably, closing your eyes so that you can focus on your own breathing. After that, you should focus your attention on the air that goes in and out of the lungs to regulate breathing.

If shortness of breath is being caused by a transient illness such as cold or flu, steam sprays of eucalyptus tea can help clear the airways, easing airflow and reducing discomfort.

However, if shortness of breath is caused by diseases such as asthma or bronchitis, for example, it may be necessary to use specific medication to clear the airways, such as Aerolin or Salbutamol for example, as indicated by your doctor.

Necessary exams

Tests are not always necessary to identify the cause of the shortness of breath because some cases are obvious, such as tiredness, obesity, stress, pregnancy or when the person already has asthma, bronchitis, or other heart or respiratory disease that has been previously discovered.

But sometimes, the tests are necessary, and therefore you may need to perform chest x-rays, electrocardiograms, spirometry, blood counts, blood glucose, TSH, urea, and electrolytes.

What to say to the doctor

There is information that may be useful for the doctor to assist in finding the cause and indicating the necessary treatment, they are:

  • When the shortness of breath arose, whether it was sudden or worsened gradually;
  • What time of the year, and whether you were out of the country or not;
  • If you were doing any physical activity or some exertion before starting this symptom;
  • How often does it arise and what are the most difficult moments;
  • If there are other symptoms at the same time, such as cough, catarrh, use of medications.

It is also very helpful for the doctor to know if the shortness of breath is similar to the feeling that effort is needed to breathe, a choking feeling or a tightness in the chest.

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