Feeling short of breath or like you can't take a satisfying breath can be scary. But struggling to breathe is more common than you may think. Shortness of breath can negatively impact your quality of life and prevent you from doing activities you enjoy. So what causes breathing difficulties, and how can you find relief? Read on to learn about 7 common reasons you may be struggling to breathe, when to seek emergency care, and lifestyle remedies and medical treatments that can help you breathe easier.
Common Causes of Breathing Difficulties
Shortness of breath, also called dyspnea, has many possible underlying causes. Here are some of the most common reasons you may be struggling to take a deep breath:
1. Heart and Lung Conditions
Some of the most common causes of shortness of breath are chronic conditions affecting your heart and lungs. These include:
Asthma - This chronic lung disease causes swelling and narrowing of the airways, making breathing difficult. Allergies, illness, exercise, stress, and other triggers can set off asthma symptoms like wheezing, tightness in the chest, and shortness of breath.
COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease) - COPD is a progressive disease that blocks airflow and makes it hard to breathe. Causes include smoking, exposure to pollution, and genetic factors. COPD includes chronic bronchitis and emphysema.
Pulmonary edema - Fluid accumulation in the lungs, called pulmonary edema, leads to shortness of breath. It can be caused by heart failure, kidney disease, or other medical conditions.
Pulmonary embolism - A pulmonary embolism is a blood clot in the lungs that blocks blood flow. It causes sudden shortness of breath, chest pain, and coughing up blood.
Pneumonia - This lung infection causes inflammation that fills the air sacs with fluid, pus, and debris. It leads to cough, fever, chills, and difficulty breathing.
If you have an underlying heart or lung condition, flare-ups can worsen shortness of breath. So it's important to take medications as prescribed and avoid triggers. See your doctor if symptoms persist.
2. Allergies and Environmental Triggers
Allergies and substances in your environment can also make breathing more difficult by irritating your airways:
Allergies - Allergens like pollen, pet dander, mold, and dust mites can trigger allergic reactions. This leads to stuffiness, mucus production, and shortness of breath.
Air pollution - Poor outdoor air quality from vehicle exhaust, chemicals, smoke, and other pollutants can irritate the lungs.
Indoor irritants - Things like harsh cleaning products, scented candles, and smoke inside your home can also cause breathing issues.
Cold, dry air - Dry air, especially in the winter, can worsen shortness of breath for some people. Breathing in cold, dry air irritates airways.
Paying attention to what worsens your breathing can help you identify and avoid triggers. Using an air purifier, humidifier, and over-the-counter allergy medications can also help.
3. Stress, Anxiety, and Panic Attacks
Mental health conditions like stress, anxiety, and panic attacks can also manifest with physical symptoms like shortness of breath and chest tightness:
Anxiety - Excessive worrying and anxiety activates your body's fight-or-flight response. This causes faster, shallower breathing as your body tries to get more oxygen.
Panic attacks - These episodes of intense fear and anxiety often involve shortness of breath or feelings of being smothered. Hyperventilating is common during panic attacks.
Chronic stress - High levels of constant stress raise cortisol and activate nerves that control breathing muscles. This can lead to tightness in the chest and feeling like you can't take a deep breath.
Using relaxation techniques, addressing sources of stress, and consulting a therapist for support can help manage anxiety and stress that affects breathing.
Anemia occurs when you lack enough healthy red blood cells to carry sufficient oxygen to tissues and organs. The most common symptom of anemia is fatigue. But shortness of breath, especially with exertion, is also common.
Causes of anemia include:
- Heavy periods or blood loss
- Iron, vitamin B12, folate deficiencies
- Sickle cell disease
- Aplastic anemia
Doctors can run blood tests to diagnose anemia. Treatment involves dietary changes, supplements, medication, or blood transfusions in some cases. Addressing the underlying cause is key.
Carrying excess weight puts more pressure on your lungs and diaphragm, the main muscle involved in breathing. This can make you feel short of breath, especially with physical activity. Even a small amount of weight loss can improve breathing difficulties.
6. Respiratory Infections
Viral and bacterial lung infections like pneumonia, bronchitis, and the flu can inflame and clog airways. This leads to difficulty breathing along with coughing up mucus, fever, and chest pain.
See your doctor right away if you suspect a respiratory infection. Most clear up within a few weeks with rest and medications. Practicing good hygiene helps prevent infection in the first place.
7. Sleep Apnea
This common sleep disorder causes your throat muscles to relax and block your airway during sleep. It leads to loud snoring, gasping for air, and waking up frequently. These breathing interruptions reduce oxygen levels. Tiredness, morning headaches, and shortness of breath are common symptoms.
Lifestyle changes, mouthpieces, CPAP machines, and surgery can successfully treat sleep apnea for most people.
When to Seek Emergency Care
In most cases, shortness of breath comes on gradually. But some symptoms warrant immediate emergency care:
- Sudden, severe shortness of breath
- Turning blue in the lips and fingers
- Feeling like you can't get enough air
- Very rapid, shallow breathing
- Chest pain along with breathing difficulties
Call 911 or go to the ER right away if you experience any of these alarming symptoms. They can indicate conditions like a heart attack, pulmonary embolism, or pneumothorax. Prompt treatment is critical for these life-threatening emergencies.
Lifestyle Changes and Home Remedies for Relief
While seeing a doctor for an evaluation is important, there are also many lifestyle remedies and natural ways to find relief from shortness of breath. Try these tips:
Quit Smoking - Smoking damages lungs and worsens most respiratory conditions. Quitting can dramatically improve breathing difficulties.
Exercise Regularly - Cardio exercise strengthens breathing muscles and improves lung capacity. But pace yourself and avoid overexertion. Walking, swimming, and yoga are great options.
Lose Excess Weight - Carrying extra weight strains your cardiovascular and respiratory systems. Losing even a small amount of weight can ease shortness of breath.
Use a Humidifier - Dry air irritates airways and worsens breathing issues. Run a humidifier, especially in your bedroom at night.
Improve Indoor Air Quality - Reduce indoor air pollution by opening windows regularly, using HEPA air filters, avoiding harsh chemicals and smoke, and cleaning mold and dust.
Avoid Triggers - Stay away from substances that worsen your breathing like cigarette smoke, strong scents, and known allergy triggers when possible.
Practice Breathing Exercises - Techniques like pursed lip breathing and diaphragmatic breathing maximize air intake and help you breathe more efficiently.
Use Relaxation Techniques - Stress and anxiety tighten breathing muscles. Try meditation, yoga, mindfulness, and progressive muscle relaxation to calm your mind.
Get Plenty of Rest - Shortness of breath can worsen when you’re run down. Make sure to get enough sleep and take breaks as needed.
Drink Plenty of Fluids - Staying hydrated thins mucus so it’s easier to cough up. Drink lots of water, herbal tea, broth, and other non-caffeinated beverages.
Use OTC Medications Wisely - Nasal strips, antihistamines, expectorants, and bronchodilators can provide symptom relief if used as directed. See your doctor if OTC meds aren’t helping.
Avoid Irritants - Don’t use sprays, paints, chemicals, or anything with strong fumes until breathing improves. Limit chores like vacuuming that kick up dust.
Adjust Your Environment - Sit near open windows, run a fan, or go outdoors for fresh air. Avoid very hot, humid, or cold conditions that strain breathing.
Improve Posture - Slouching restricts lung expansion. Stand up straight with shoulders back to maximize your lung capacity.
Try Pursed Lip Breathing - Breathing out slowly through pursed lips can help control shortness of breath. It keeps airways open longer so you don’t have to work as hard to breathe in.
Making lifestyle changes, avoiding triggers, and using home remedies can go a long way towards easing breathing difficulties. But see your doctor if symptoms persist or worsen.
If lifestyle remedies aren’t providing enough relief from shortness of breath, your doctor has several medical treatment options depending on the cause:
Bronchodilators open airways by relaxing smooth muscle. They provide quick relief for conditions like asthma and COPD.
Corticosteroids reduce airway inflammation common in lung diseases. They come in inhalers, pills, and intravenous forms.
Antibiotics treat underlying infections causing breathing difficulties.
Diuretics remove excess fluid from the lungs and body.
Anti-anxiety medications and antidepressants help control panic attacks and anxiety affecting the respiratory system.
Your doctor may prescribe supplemental oxygen delivered through a nasal cannula, mask, or tube if your blood oxygen level is low. This makes breathing easier and gets more oxygen into your blood.
This supervised program combines exercise training, education, and counseling. It can dramatically improve quality of life for people with chronic lung disease.
Surgery is an option for some causes of severe shortness of breath:
- Lung volume reduction surgery for emphysema
- Draining fluid around the lungs
- Lung transplantation
- Heart surgery for valve problems or blockages
CPAP and BiPAP Machines
These machines improve breathing during sleep for those with sleep apnea. They provide continuous positive airway pressure via a mask you wear at night.
When you can’t breathe adequately on your own, a ventilator delivers air to your lungs through a tube inserted through the mouth or nose. This may be used in the hospital for severe respiratory failure.
Be sure to follow your doctor’s treatment instructions carefully. Ask about any concerns you have with medications or procedures. With the right medical care, most causes of shortness of breath can be successfully treated.
Struggling to breathe or feeling short of breath? Keep these key points in mind:
Shortness of breath has many potential underlying causes, including lung conditions, allergies, obesity, infections, and anxiety.
Seek emergency care if you experience sudden, severe breathing difficulties along with other alarming symptoms.
Lifestyle remedies like quitting smoking, avoiding triggers, humidifying the air, and practicing breathing exercises can provide relief at home.
Doctors can prescribe medications and oxygen therapy tailored to the cause of your breathing problems.
Procedures like surgery and mechanical ventilation may be options for severe, life-threatening respiratory distress.
Addressing any underlying heart or lung disease through medical treatment is key to managing chronic shortness of breath.
Learning breathing techniques and making lifestyle changes can help maximize your lung function and make breathing easier.
Don’t assume shortness of breath is something you just have to live with. Work with your doctor to find the treatment plan that will work for you. Regaining the ability to breathe freely is possible! With the right approach, you can start feeling like yourself again.
Difficulty breathing can arise for many reasons and significantly reduce your quality of life. Try not to panic if you experience shortness of breath. Instead, identify potential triggers in your environment, use breathing techniques to find relief, and see your doctor to determine the cause.
With lifestyle remedies, medical treatment, and learning to manage chronic conditions, most people can achieve good control over their breathing difficulties. Stay vigilant with your treatment plan, and be patient through the process. Regaining clear airways and breathing freely again is well worth all the effort.