Shortness of breath – causes, treatment

Shortness of breath

Shortness of breath , shortness of breath or dyspnea is a difficult breathing activity that is perceived as unpleasant. The symptoms and consequences can be very different in their perception. Shortness of breath that only occurs during exertion is called exertional dyspnea. There is also speech dyspnea, in which even speaking is accompanied by severe shortness of breath. The extreme form, however, is probably resting dyspnea, which can sometimes be improved with orthopnea using only the auxiliary respiratory muscles.

In contrast to lack of air, shortness of breath is perceived as a life threatening acute level, whereby this statement is always experienced in a subjective context.

What is shortness of breath?

Shortness of breath is a condition in which the patient can hardly breathe in the air that he absolutely needs.

In medical jargon, the condition is known as dyspnea. In the case of shortness of breath, the patient usually feels fear of death because he gets the feeling that he is about to suffocate.

Shortness of breath can be caused by exertion, but it can also occur more often when sitting or lying down. Occasionally it is a form of shortness of breath that causes problems, especially when speaking.


All diseases that lead to a reduction in oxygen uptake or pathological processing through the respiratory organs are to be regarded as the cause of shortness of breath. However, psychosocial factors can also play a role.

The causes of shortness of breath are mainly all diseases of the lungs and the heart muscle. Among other things, both are responsible for supplying the body with vital oxygen. Typical diseases of the lungs are asthma or inflammatory reactions such as pneumonia , but more serious diseases such as cancer are also possible. Shortness of breath is often just part of another complex of symptoms, but is perceived by the patient as so unpleasant and threatening that he focuses on it.

Shortness of breath can be caused by obstruction of the airways. With severe colds and inflammation of the respiratory tract, mucus forms and is deposited in the respiratory tract.

Such shortness of breath often only lasts for a short time until the patient has coughed up the airways again, but it is a frightening situation. In this context, the difficulty of breathing in general is often regarded and referred to by the patient as shortness of breath.

Due to special processes in the environment and the psyche of the patient, shortness of breath can also occur. People who suffer from panic attacks often experience accompanying shortness of breath in such situations. Extreme anxiety is inherently a dangerous situation – especially when the patient has a medical history that has made them particularly prone to shortness of breath.

The mental perception of shortness of breath itself is still relatively unexplored, since breathing is the only vital function in the brainstem that is also controlled by cortical impulses and signals.

diseases with this symptom


Diagnosis & History

In order to diagnose the causes of shortness of breath, a doctor treating you usually first asks when you first felt a shortage of air.

Circumstances accompanying the shortness of breath, underlying diseases and any medications or existing nicotine consumption also provide diagnostic information. Possible subsequent physical examinations include (depending on the suspected diagnosis), for example, listening to the lungs and a blood analysis. In addition, allergy tests , tissue examinations, bronchial mirrors or X-ray examinations can be carried out.

The course of shortness of breath depends primarily on its cause. Acute shortness of breath (such as in the case of allergic reactions) is often more intense than a chronic variant, which often sets in insidiously (initially only under physical stress and then increasingly independent of stress).


Shortness of breath almost always indicates a serious physical condition. If the patient is already in a clinic, they can be helped quickly if they experience shortness of breath. If, on the other hand, the shortness of breath starts somewhere else, there is a risk that the person concerned will panic so much that they can no longer help themselves.

Of course, the most helpful thing is to calm the person concerned, as the shortness of breath sometimes improves or even stops through consciously calm breathing . In order to achieve this, however, a second person is usually necessary to calm the person concerned down and assure them that help is on the way. If the shortness of breath is caused by a serious cause such as an allergy or a heart condition, breathing can stop completely. Another high risk is the lack of oxygen, which becomes relevant if the shortness of breath does not stop on its own after a short time or gets worse. First, the victim faints.

In the worst case, however, the cause of the shortness of breath cannot be eliminated immediately and damage to the brain can occur if the person concerned can no longer breathe. In the event of shortness of breath, an ambulance should always be called first before the affected person is calmed down. If he is short of breath, it is best not to move or walk around, but to sit down, as this promotes calming.

When should you go to the doctor?

A doctor should be consulted in the event of regular or persistent shortness of breath over several days. As soon as relatives notice that breathing disorders are occurring during sleep or that the person concerned wakes up several times with a feeling of lack of air, it is advisable to see a doctor. A single occurrence of shortness of breath over a limited period of time should not be a cause for concern in most cases. However, the recurrence points to bigger problems.

In addition, persistent shortness of breath leads to further complications that can also be life-threatening. The lack of oxygen in the blood means that the entire organism, and above all the heart, is exposed to greater demands. Short-term shortness of breath is comparable to physical exertion such as with sporting activities. The healthy organism can cope with this without any problems.

If the shortness of breath occurs due to an existing illness, such as a cold or inflammation in the nasopharynx, it is usually taken into account in the diagnosis and medication of the underlying disease. A doctor should be consulted again in these cases if the symptoms worsen. Persistent shortness of breath without the existence of an underlying disease can be a symptom of a variety of other diseases. These can affect the lungs, heart or nasopharynx and should be examined.

Treatment & Therapy

The treatment of shortness of breath depends on the individual clinical picture.

Accordingly, individual measures are taken. Acute diseases of the respiratory tract, such as bronchitis , are treated with medication and the patient must avoid situations in which breathing difficulties could occur. There are other methods for chronic diseases such as asthma , such as the well-known inhaler for loosening and opening the airways.

In any case, mucus should be coughed up as much as possible. The treatment of psychologically caused shortness of breath falls within the area of ​​responsibility of the psychologist. This can find out where the shortness of breath is coming from.

A therapy that is individually tailored to the patient is then developed, which is intended to help him to avoid shortness of breath in the future by getting the underlying problem under control.

Outlook & Forecast

Shortness of breath can occur due to many different causes, which is why no universal prospects and complications can be mentioned here. As a rule, shortness of breath in humans leads to a strong feeling of fear . Often the thought of death by suffocation comes up, greatly reducing the quality of life. Stress can also lead to shortness of breath in some situations. If the shortness of breath occurs mainly in stressful situations, talking to a psychologist and breathing training will help so that you don’t lose your mind even in stressful situations.

In many cases, shortness of breath indicates other difficulties and occurs especially in older people. Shortness of breath can be a sign of heart problems or lung problems. If shortness of breath occurs frequently and leads to great difficulty breathing, a doctor must be consulted in any case.

The treatment itself is carried out either with the help of medication or surgically. The treatment is often carried out as a preventive measure, for example if there is a risk of a heart attack . If acute shortness of breath occurs, the emergency doctor must be called immediately. If the symptom is not treated properly, it can lead to death in the worst case.

Smokers in particular are often affected by shortness of breath. The symptom can be reduced by quitting smoking.


Shortness of breath can only be prevented to a limited extent. It often results from a condition that the patient did nothing to cause. The general rule is: Situations in which there is increased shortness of breath should be avoided.

Preventative means must always be taken correctly. Larger loads should always be avoided.

In the case of psychologically caused shortness of breath, it is important for the patient to avoid situations in which the symptom occurs. Only when he knows that he can fight the shortness of breath should he expose himself to such stress again. In any case, treatment by a trusted psychologist is important.


Both the frequency and type of follow-up examination depend on the causes of the shortness of breath. Nevertheless, the following always applies: If a patient suffers from shortness of breath, a lung function test should be carried out. After a disease of the lungs, a regular lung function test is important to check the lung volume, even if the symptoms have already subsided. In addition, the functionality of the lungs as a whole is checked in a lung function test.

If there is a heart disease, a cardiologist must also be consulted for follow-up care. If the cause of the shortness of breath is a serious illness, blood must be taken at regular intervals for follow-up care. This is used to measure the oxygen level in the blood.

A low oxygen content has a negative effect on well-being and bodily functions. The blood can be taken by your family doctor, a visit to the hospital is only necessary in emergencies. Shortness of breath is not always clearly measurable as a subjective sensation. Shortness of breath can be caused by both physical and psychosomatic illnesses.

Regular follow-up care is recommended in the event of shortness of breath, as a follow-up examination increases the patient’s sense of security. Regular follow-up care can alleviate symptoms in patients with psychosomatic illnesses. In patients with physical illness, regular follow-up care is used to prevent a recurrence of the illness and subsequent illnesses.

You can do that yourself

Acute shortness of breath is a threatening situation for those affected. Because of this, they should be avoided. If people have appropriate medicines, they should be taken regularly and at an early stage. This is the only way to reduce the risk of acute shortness of breath.

If you still experience acute shortness of breath, some immediate measures can help. Affected people are advised to remain calm and inhale the acute drug. It is also advisable to open the window when the person concerned is in the apartment. In addition, breathing positions can help. This includes the coach seat and the stand with supports. Pursed lips also help in acute emergencies.

In the coach seat, those affected have to sit down and bend their upper body forward. Then the elbows are supported on the knees. This relieves the chest , which makes breathing easier.

When standing with support, the chest also relieves pressure. Here, the patient must bend forward and support their arms on a banister or on their knees.

Pursed lip slows down the flow of air. This method creates a slight back pressure, expanding the bronchi . Those affected should breathe out through their loosely pressed lips. Breathing must be slow and calm. Squeezing is discouraged: there should be no breathing noise.

Lisa Newlon
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Hello! I am Lisa Newlon, and I am a medical writer and researcher with over 10 years of experience in the healthcare industry. I have a Master’s degree in Medicine, and my deep understanding of medical terminology, practices, and procedures has made me a trusted source of information in the medical world.