Apr 20, 2016 , 6 min read
Breathing difficulty is a broad term that is used to describe discomfort when breathing, and the feeling that you cannot draw a breath.
This can develop gradually, or your breathing may suddenly become more labored. Breathing difficulties make you feel as though you cannot get enough air. Mild breathing problems, such as fatigue following an aerobics class, are not a concern.
Breathing difficulty can be caused by a number of different conditions, or it can develop as a result of stress and anxiety.
Frequently occurring shortness of breath or sudden, intense breathing difficulty may be a sign of a serious health issue in need of medical attention.
What Causes Breathing Difficulties?
Breathing difficulties are often caused by simple environmental issues and/or common health concerns. These include:
- allergies to dust, mold, or pollen
- stress and anxiety
- blocked air passages from a stuffy nose or throat phlegm
- lowered oxygen intake from climbing to a high altitude
According to the experts at the Mayo Clinic, lung and heart conditions are the top two reasons for breathing difficulty
There are a number of lung conditions that can cause breathing difficulty. All of these require immediate medical attention, some more immediate than others:
- Asthma is an inflammation and narrowing of the airways that can cause shortness of breath, wheezing, chest tightness, and coughing.
- Pneumonia is lung inflammation that is caused by infection. Symptoms may include shortness of breath, cough, chest pain, chills, sweating, fever, muscle pain, and exhaustion. This condition, in some cases, can be life threatening.
- COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease) is the term used for a group of diseases that cause difficulty exhaling and other symptoms, such as wheezing, a constant cough, and chest tightness. Emphysema, often caused by years of smoking, is in this category of diseases.
- Pulmonary embolism is a blockage in one or more of the arteries leading to the lungs. This is often caused by a blood clot from elsewhere, often a leg, which has travelled up to the lung arteries. This condition can be life threatening and requires immediate medical attention. Other symptoms include swelling of the leg, chest pain, cough, wheezing, profuse sweating, abnormal heart rate, dizziness, and/or a bluish tint to the skin.
- Pulmonary hypertension is high blood pressure that affects the lung and heart arteries. This condition is often caused by the narrowing or hardening of the lung arteries. Symptoms of this condition are very similar to those of a pulmonary embolism. Immediate medical attention is needed.
- Croup is a respiratory condition caused by an acute viral infection and is known for its distinctively loud, “barking” cough. Make an appointment with your doctor if you or your child has croup. Children under 5 are more susceptible to more serious complications with this condition .
- Epiglottitis is a swelling of the epiglottis (the tissue that covers the windpipe) due to infection. This is a life-threatening disease that requires immediate medical attention. Other symptoms include fever, sore throat, mouth drooling, blue skin, difficulty breathing and swallowing, strange breathing sounds, chills, and hoarseness. There are vaccinations to prevent this condition.
- Hiatal hernia is the protrusion of the stomach through the diaphragm into the chest. Individuals with this condition may also experience chest pain, difficulty swallowing, and heartburn. Small hiatal hernias can often be treated with medications and lifestyle changes; larger hernias or smaller ones that do not respond to treatment may require surgery.
You may notice yourself getting out of breath more often if you suffer from a heart condition. This is due to the heart struggling to pump oxygen-rich blood out to the body. Possible conditions that can cause this problem include:
- coronary artery disease (CAD): a disease that causes narrowing and hardening of the arteries connected to the heart. Symptoms also include chest pain (angina) or heart attack.
- congenital heart disease: problems with the structure or functioning of the heart that were present at birth
- arrhythmias: disorders of heart rhythm or heart rate, which can cause an irregular heartbeat or a heart that beats too fast or too slow
- heart attack
- heart failure
Treatment Options for Breathing Difficulties
Determining the cause is the key to treating breathing difficulties.
If having a stuffy nose, exercising too hard, or hiking at high altitudes causes your symptoms, your breathing is likely to return to normal if you are otherwise healthy. The temporary symptoms will resolve once your cold abates, you stop exercising, or you return to a lower altitude.
If stress causes your breathing problems, the remedy is to reduce the stresses in your life and/or develop coping mechanisms. Meditation, counseling, exercise, and laughter are a few strategies for coping with ongoing stress.
Some breathing difficulties are symptoms of serious heart and lung illnesses. In these cases, your doctor will prescribe medication and other treatments. If you suffer from asthma, for example, you may be instructed to use an inhaler immediately after experiencing breathing problems. If allergies are the cause of your breathing difficulties, your doctor may prescribe an anti-histamine to reduce nasal inflammation, and may also recommend avoiding triggers like dust or pollen.