Few sensations are as frightening as not being able to get enough air. Shortness of breath — known medically as dyspnea — is often described as an intense tightening in the chest, air hunger or a feeling of suffocation.
Very strenuous exercise, extreme temperatures, massive obesity and high altitude all can cause shortness of breath in a healthy person. Outside of these examples, shortness of breath is likely a sign of a medical problem.
If you have unexplained shortness of breath, especially if it comes on suddenly and is severe, see your doctor as soon as possible.
Most cases of shortness of breath are due to heart or lung conditions. Your heart and lungs are involved in transporting oxygen to your tissues and removing carbon dioxide, and problems with either of these processes affect your breathing.
Shortness of breath that comes on suddenly (called acute) has a limited number of causes, including:
In the case of shortness of breath that has lasted for weeks or longer (called chronic), the condition is most often due to:
A number of other health conditions also can make it hard to get enough air. These include:
Call 911 or your local emergency number or have someone drive you to the emergency room if you experience severe shortness of breath that comes on suddenly and affects your ability to function. Seek emergency medical care if your shortness of breath is accompanied by chest pain, fainting or nausea — as these may be signs of a heart attack or pulmonary embolism.
Make an appointment with your doctor if your shortness of breath is accompanied by:
To help keep chronic shortness of breath from getting worse: