Shortness of breath – causes, symptoms and treatment

Shortness of breath is one of the most common health complaints, forcing many people across the world to seek medical advice. Nevertheless, it is important to distinguish between normal physiological shortness of breath as a result of hard work or active pastime, after which breathing is restored and pathological shortness of breath accompanying various diseases, which we will talk about today. 

Shortness of breath – what is it

Shortness of breath (dyspnea) is a special condition, or symptom of various diseases, in which a person experiences a shortage of air. Because of this, uncomfortable sensations appear in the chest, and sometimes other respiratory disorders, in the form of more frequent and shallow breathing, the appearance of noise in the chest. 

As a rule, the presence of dyspnea is noticed not only by the person who has it, but also by people around him, so dyspnea has a pronounced severity.

Shortness of breath – ICD

ICD-10: R06.8
ICD-9: 786.0
ICD-9-KM: 786.09

Shortness of breath – causes

Consider the main causes of shortness of breath, depending on the location of the pathology.

Shortness of breath in diseases of the respiratory system

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is a group of diseases characterized by a number of pathological changes in the structure of the lungs and their components (bronchioles, alveoli, etc.), with impaired functioning. The main symptoms are lack of air and a wet cough, i.e. with the discharge of sputum. Usually carries a chronic nature. Often found in smokers or workers with adverse environmental conditions (construction, manufacturing workshops, etc.).  

The term COPD means pulmonary emphysema, chronic obstructive bronchitis, chronic obliterating bronchiolitis, severe forms of bronchial asthma, bronchiectasis, byssinosis, cystic fibrosis.  

Bronchitis is an inflammatory disease of the bronchi, usually of an infectious nature, in which there is also a narrowing of their lumen by an excessive amount of secretion involved in the body’s immune response to pathogenic microflora. Sputum at the beginning of serous, and then with an admixture of purulent formations. The main symptoms are shallow breathing and severe coughing, as well as fever or fever with weakness.    

Pneumonia is an inflammatory disease of the lungs, most often of an infectious nature, in which a pathological secret appears in the alveoli, respiratory function in the form of superficial breathing and chest pain are impaired . Other symptoms include excruciating cough, fever, wheezing sounds when breathing, weakness.   

Pleurisy is an inflammatory disease of the pulmonary pleural sheets, accompanied by the loss of fibrin on them or an excessive accumulation of fluid in the pleural cavity. Symptoms include coughing, chest pain, fever, weakness, shortness of breath, and, as the disease progresses, tracheal displacement. 

A lung tumor is a benign or malignant (cancer) lesion that does not make itself felt at the beginning of development, but as it develops due to compression of the lungs, a shortage of air appears, constantly progressing to respiratory failure. In addition, the patient develops a cough, pain behind the sternum, a gradual decrease in body weight, weakness and blanching of the skin.    

Bronchial asthma is a disease primarily of the bronchi, in which it is more difficult for a patient to exhale than to inhale. It is characterized by a narrowing of the bronchial lumen, which at the time of an asthma attack due to contraction of the muscle tissue of the bronchi narrows even more, due to which air is retained in the pulmonary alveoli. Other symptoms are cough, chest discomfort, shallow breathing, orthopnea. If you do not remove bronchospasm in time with the help of bronchomimetics (relax the muscles in the airways, due to which the bronchi expand), a person may lose consciousness. The main causes of seizures are exposure to allergic factors – dust, pollen, wool, smoke, food and others. 

Pulmonary tuberculosis is an infectious disease of the lungs, characterized by a slow development and the appearance of inflammation in these organs, gradually affecting the immune and other cells of the body. It is characterized by cough, pallor of the skin, weakness, increased body temperature, decreased appetite, pain behind the sternum. 

Pneumothorax of the lung is a pathology characterized by the penetration of air into the pleural cavity, in fact, where it should not get. This leads to compression of the lungs and impaired respiratory function, due to which there is a lack of oxygen, respiratory failure, displacement of the mediastinal organs. Requires immediate medical attention. Symptoms – a sharp pain in the chest, a sharp appearance of shortness of breath, the appearance of fear, a decrease in blood pressure, cough, the appearance of sweat.  

Pulmonary thromboembolism (pulmonary embolism) is a lung disease in which blood circulation in any part of the lungs is impaired due to blockage of a pulmonary thrombus. Because of this, the area cut off from food ceases to function normally, shortness of breath, chest pain, decreased blood pressure, arrhythmias, and sometimes coughing up blood and fainting appear.  

Diseases of the spine (osteochondrosis, kyphosis, scoliosis, pathological lordosis, intervertebral hernias, etc.) – when pinching the nerve or blood lines passing through the spinal column, various disorders can appear in almost all organs and systems, and respiratory function is no exception.    

Other diseases, disorders and conditions in the respiratory system, which may be accompanied by shortness of breath – laryngitis, tracheitis, bronchiolitis, silicosis, pulmonary edema, sarcoidosis.   

Also, the cause may be an uncomfortable posture or a sleeping place, in which there is excessive pressure on the respiratory system.

Dyspnea in diseases of the cardiovascular system

Typically, with heart disease, lack of air (cardiac dyspnea) is manifested during physical exertion on the body, for example, climbing stairs. However, as the disease progresses, dyspnea intensifies and may be present even at rest.

Heart failure is a syndrome characterized by impaired myocardial function in pumping blood. The main symptoms are lack of air during physical exertion, and at the last stages and at rest, as well as swelling of the legs, periodic pain in the heart, arrhythmias, unstable blood pressure (increased and decreased), weakness, dizziness and fainting, turning blue on the skin of the legs, fingers and toes, nose and ears.    

Arterial hypertension (hypertension) is a disease of the heart and blood vessels, characterized by stably elevated blood pressure, which leads to impaired pumping function of the myocardium. Symptoms – periodic lack of air, “flies” in front of the eyes, weakness, headaches, tinnitus, redness of the skin on the face, and sometimes heart pains also appear.   

Myocardial infarction is an acute lesion of the heart caused by a violation of the blood supply to the area of ​​the heart muscle, which is why death occurs at this place and then normal tissues are replaced with scar tissue. The main symptoms are severe heart pain, blanching of the skin with excessive sweating, arrhythmias, a sharp decrease in blood pressure, superficial rapid breathing and shortness of breath. A distinctive feature is Nitroglycerin, after which the pain does not go away. Emergency medical attention required. 

Inflammatory heart diseases – endocarditis (inflammation of the inner lining of the heart), myocarditis (inflammation of the heart muscle), pericarditis (inflammation of the outer lining of the heart). In addition to lack of air, all three diseases are accompanied by pains in the heart, arrhythmias, uneven pressure and other signs of a disturbance in the activity of the heart muscle.         

Paroxysmal tachycardia is a type of arrhythmia in which there is a more frequent contraction of the heart muscle, due to which there is a violation of normal blood circulation, and as a result, blood supply to various organs and tissues. Symptoms – heart palpitations, lack of air, weakness, changes in blood pressure. 

Dyspnea in diseases of the nervous system

Neurasthenia and other forms of neurosis are a destructive neurotic disorder caused by prolonged psychoemotional exhaustion, in which a number of disorders develop in various organs and systems. The main symptoms are arrhythmias, pressure drops, shortness of breath, weaknesses, obsessive thoughts, trembling hands, insomnia, depression, phobias and others.    

Vegetative-vascular dystonia (VVD), or neurocirculatory dystonia, is the collective name for a group of disorders caused by a dysfunction of the autonomic nervous system, which leads to periodic malfunctions of the heart, blood vessels, and respiratory organs with symptoms characteristic of them. 

Dyspnea for blood diseases

Anemia (anemia) is a group of clinical and hematological syndromes or a blood disease characterized by a decrease in the number of red blood cells and hemoglobin in the blood. The main reasons are insufficient intake of iron, vitamins B9 and B12, as well as increased destruction of blood components due to various pathologies, diseases and conditions – menstruation, diet, cancer of the blood and other organs, gastrointestinal ulcers and others. Symptoms – blanching of the skin and mucous membranes, increased fatigue, weakness, dizziness, headache, shortness of breath, tachycardia, mental impairment       

Dyspnea with diseases of the endocrine system

Obesity is a disease characterized by excessive accumulation of fat cells in the body, which leads to an increase in body weight and an excessive load on the work of the heart, blood vessels, spine and other parts of the body. The main causes are metabolic disturbance, a sedentary lifestyle, a malfunction in the endocrine system, and systematic overeating. Symptoms – fatigue, shortness of breath, heart rhythm disturbances, high blood pressure, headaches. 

Hyperthyroidism (thyrotoxicosis) is a pathological condition characterized by excessive thyroid production of the hormones triiodothyronine (T3) and thyroxine (T4). Symptoms – tachycardia and other arrhythmias, increased fatigue, nervousness, impaired appetite, gastrointestinal upset, pressure drops. 

Diabetes mellitus is a group of endocrine diseases caused by a deficiency or absence of the hormone insulin in the body, as a result of which the level of glucose in the blood rises. As the disease develops, body weight is constantly decreasing, and disorders in the functioning of the heart and blood vessels appear. Symptoms – dry mouth, constant thirst, weakness, prolonged healing of wounds, pain in the heart, swelling in the legs and face, blurred vision, drops in blood pressure, shortness of breath.  

Dyspnea during pregnancy

During the period of bearing a child, a number of changes occur in the body of a woman in the form of an increase due to the fetus of the uterus, producing pressure on the diaphragm, heart, lungs, increase in blood volume, rapid breathing, and others. But, the main reason for shortness of breath during pregnancy is still constriction of the lungs by the diaphragm.

The intensification of shortness of breath during pregnancy occurs when experiences and physical exertion appear.

The normal respiratory rate during pregnancy is 22-24 in 1 minute. In the absence of pregnancy – 16-20.

Dyspnea in children

False croup is an inflammatory disease of the larynx and trachea, which leads to a narrowing of the lumen of this respiratory tract. Symptoms are impaired respiratory function, difficulty breathing (especially at night), coughing, fever, nervousness. It can lead to suffocation, therefore it requires a mandatory visit to a doctor. 

Respiratory distress syndrome in newborns is a pathology usually manifested in premature babies, characterized by a deficiency of the surfactant alveoli (a mixture of surfactants) on the inner membrane, which is involved in lung gas exchange. Symptoms – blanching or blue skin, respiratory rate (NPV) of 60 or more, shortness of breath, lethargy. 

Heart disease is a pathology in which, due to an improperly formed heart and blood vessels, a mixture of arterial and venous blood occurs, and as a result, a violation of the oxygen saturation of the blood. Hypoxia appears with its characteristic shortness of breath, arrhythmias, blood pressure drops, dizziness and other disorders of the cardiovascular system. 

Other causes of dyspnea

  • Overeating;
  • Metabolic disorders;
  • Hyperventilation of the lungs.

Shortness of breath – symptoms 

Depending on the etiology and localization of the disease, accompanied by a lack of air, the following symptoms may appear:

  • Fatigue, loss of strength, weakness;
  • Impaired mental activity;
  • Increased nervousness, anxiety;
  • Shallow breathing, tachycardia, extrasystole and other types of arrhythmias;  
  • Blood pressure drops;
  • Pain in the heart, muscles, joints, abdomen;   
  • Change in skin color to pale, yellowish or bluish;
  • Increased or decreased body temperature. 

Types of Dyspnea

The classification is as follows:

In shape:

Inspiratory dyspnea – manifests itself in the form of a difficult breath. 

Expiratory dyspnea – manifests itself in the form of difficulty exhaling. 

Mixed shortness of breath – characterized by problems with inhalation and exhalation at the same time. 

Depending on severity (MRC scale)

0 degree – breathing problems appear after a good physical load on the body. 

1 degree (mild) – disturbances in breathing appear when walking fast or climbing stairs. 

2 degree (medium) – a malfunction in breathing does not allow a person to continue a fast movement or any physical work, because of which he needs to stop and wait until his breathing is restored. 

Grade 3 (severe) – for a person to perform daily tasks or normal walking every few minutes it is necessary to stop to restore respiratory function. 

Grade 4 (very severe) – characterized by the presence of dyspnea, even at rest. 

Depending on the frequency of respiratory movements (NPV):

Tachopnea – characterized by rapid shallow breathing with an NPV of 20 and above in 1 minute. 

Bradypnea – characterized by a slowdown in surface respiration to 12 NPV and less than 1 minute. 


Physiological dyspnea – appears only with excessive physical exertion on the body; 

Pathological – appears in the presence of pathologies, diseases and other adverse factors acting in the body. 

Diagnosis of dyspnea

Diagnosis of dyspnea includes:

  • Collection of complaints, medical history, visual examination of the patient;
  • General and biochemical blood analysis;   
  • General and biochemical analysis of urine;
  • Spirometry is a non-invasive measurement of the parameters of the respiratory system;
  • Chest x- ray; 
  • Electrocardiography – a study of the work of the heart muscle; 
  • Ultrasound of the heart; 
  • Phonocardiography.

Shortness of breath treatment

The treatment of shortness of breath should primarily be based on data from an examination of the body and the identification of its cause. Moreover, respiratory disorders are primarily a symptom of various diseases and pathologies, so therapy should be aimed primarily at treating them. It is from these nuances that the choice of drugs depends. If you choose the medicine yourself, you can not only not remove respiratory disorders, but also harm the body, or already lose precious time to eliminate pathologies that are really life-threatening, for example, myocardial infarction, false croup, and others.

Conservative treatment of dyspnea may include the use of the following groups of drugs:

Expectorant and mucolytic agents – used to narrow the lumen of the respiratory tract with sputum. Mucolytics help to thin the pathological secret, and expectorant drugs using cough to clear the airways. 

Cardiological agents – used for the symptomatic treatment of heart disease. So, cardiac glycosides (stopping arrhythmias and normalizing the work of the heart with minimal loads on it), and the load on the heart decreases with the use of diuretics and vasodilators. 

Bronchodilators – a group of drugs aimed at stopping bronchospasm and relieving shortness of breath. This includes agonists of β2-adrenergic receptors, antagonists of M-cholinergic receptors, myotropic antispasmodics and others. 

Glucocorticosteroids – a group of hormonal drugs aimed at relieving puffiness. Effective with false croup and other life-threatening severe inflammatory processes. 

Antibiotics – a group of drugs aimed at the destruction of bacterial microflora, which is a common cause of infectious diseases of the respiratory system, cardiovascular system and other organs and systems. Antibiotics are not effective for viral infections.     

Treatment of shortness of breath at home with folk remedies

You can prevent an attack of shortness of breath with the help of various exercises or folk remedies. Consider them, however, remember that regular respiratory distress requires a medical examination.

Changing the position of the body. In some situations, conditions or diseases, a change in body position can not only weaken, but also completely stop shortness of breath. Here are some of these items: 

  • Lie on an equal surface and place small cushions or pillows under the head and knees.
  • Press the back of your whole body against the wall and stand for a while.
  • Sit on a chair and relax, while the head should be something of a sub-turn, for example, a headrest.

Breath with slightly parted lips. It especially helps with nervous dyspnea, i.e. respiratory failure due to stress. To perform the exercise, sit exactly in the chair and relax, squeeze your lips, leaving a small gap and take a breath in 2 seconds, after exhaling for 4 counts, and so for 10 minutes, attention, with compressed lips. 

Deep uniform breathing. Lie on a flat surface, put your hands on your stomach and take a deep breath through your nose, while expanding the abdominal cavity. Then hold your breath for 2 seconds and exhale air through your mouth. Exercise time is 8 minutes. 

Make a favorable microclimate. The best ventilation of the lungs with oxygen occurs if the room is well ventilated and the air in it is slightly cool and moist. An air humidifier is perfect for this. 

Aromatherapy Oil of some plants, for example, needles, mint, lavender, has an excellent relaxing effect on the nervous system . They also give a feeling of oxygen saturation.  

Walks. To improve the work of the heart and respiratory organs, daily walks in the fresh air are great. It is perfectly breathed in the forest, on the coasts of rivers, and especially seas and oceans. If you live in a city, find yourself a public garden, a park. In case of unwillingness to walk along the street every day – get a dog. Over the years, your pet will make you thank God that he appeared in your life.  

By the way, Professor Tove Fall and other scientists from the University of Uppsala (Sweden) conducted a study and concluded that dog owners after suffering serious diseases of the cardiovascular system live 33% longer than those who do not have animals.  

Cranberry. Pour 500 ml of boiling water 5 tbsp. tablespoons of cranberry berries, let the product brew for about 1 hour, add 1-2 teaspoons of natural honey to it and drink throughout the day, in equal portions, for 4-5 approaches. 

Prevention of shortness of breath

Preventive measures to prevent shortness of breath include:

  • Timely consultation with a doctor at the first sign of various diseases in order to prevent chronic respiratory distress;
  • Compliance with personal hygiene; 
  • Avoid hypothermia or overheating of the body, stress, as well as compliance with the working regime and get enough sleep;   
  • Replenish the body with vitamins and macro-microelements, which is especially important in the autumn-winter-spring periods;   
  • Move more, lead an active lifestyle;
  • Get a dog, so you have to walk with your pet 2-3 times a day every day, and also get a bike, go to the gym.
  • Follow the diet, give preference to products that are rich in nutrients. Do not overeat.
event_note June 26, 2020

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