Need to take a deep breath

What Does Shortness of Breath Feel Like & When Is It Serious?

WHEN SHOULD I WORRY ABOUT... July 7, 2021 - Katie McCallum

Breathing is an automatic process, meaning it's carried out without any conscious effort on your part.

So, when breathing becomes a conscious effort — such that you're short of breath and have to remind yourself to take deep breaths — it can be frightening, especially if you've never experienced it before.

"Shortness of breath is a symptom that can be associated with many conditions, primarily heart and lung conditions. Both of these are incredibly important organs, so it's never a good idea to ignore shortness of breath or treat it lightly," says Dr. Zeenat Safdar, pulmonologist at Houston Methodist Lung Center.

The many causes of shortness of breath include:

  • Asthma
  • Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)
  • Pulmonary hypertension
  • Pulmonary fibrosis
  • Respiratory tract infection, including pneumonia or bronchitis
  • Heart conditions, such as cardiomyopathy, heart attack and heart failure
  • Obesity
  • Being out of shape (muscle deconditioning)
  • Anxiety or panic attacks

Where do you feel shortness of breath?

Shortness of breath is felt in your chest and can manifest as:

  • Difficulty catching your breath
  • Feeling a need to breathe more quickly or deeply
  • Not feeling able to take a full, deep breath
  • Feeling huffy and puffy

"You may first notice shortness of breath during physical activity. For instance, maybe you can no longer keep pace with someone you're walking with or you can't climb a flight of stairs. Previously, you could stop and take a deep breath and carry on, but that's harder now," says Dr. Safdar. "And shortness of breath can progress over time, to the point where you experience it even while at rest."

But not all shortness of breath develops slowly over time. Sometimes, shortness of breath hits suddenly, and maybe even severely.

When shortness of breath is acute, it's typically accompanied by other symptoms, such as:

  • Fever and cough (pneumonia)
  • Itching, swelling or a rash (allergic reaction)
  • Wheezing (asthma)
  • Pain in the chest, blurry vision and lightheadedness (heart attack)
  • Chest pain and leg swelling, especially after long travel (pulmonary embolism)

When is shortness of breath serious?

"You should always take shortness of breath seriously," stresses Dr. Safdar.

Importantly, if shortness of breath is moderate to severe and occurs suddenly — and especially if it's accompanied by chest pain, lightheadedness and changes to the color of your skin — it's become a medical emergency that warrants a call to 911.

"This can be a sign of a heart attack or pulmonary embolism, which are both life-threatening emergencies," says Dr. Safdar. "Additionally, the symptoms of a panic attack can overlap with these medical emergencies. Still, even if you think your symptoms are due to a panic attack, it's important to go to the ER to get checked out and confirm you're not in immediate danger."

Then there's the milder shortness of breath experienced on occasion with physical activity. While this isn't a medical emergency, it's not something to ignore either.

"Even mild shortness of breath can be a harbinger of a more serious condition," says Dr. Safdar. "And if it progresses to the point where it's causing you to modify your activity level, it's definitely time to talk to your primary care doctor about your symptoms. "

What does shortness of breath mean?

Shortness of breath occurs when you're not getting enough oxygen, leaving you to feel like you need to breathe harder, quicker and/or deeper. And, if you feel like you're not getting enough oxygen, your organs aren't either — which can have serious short-term and long-term consequences to your health.

"As mentioned, shortness of breath can be caused by a variety of conditions, ranging from asthma and COPD to heart failure. Your doctor can run the tests needed to help make a diagnosis, as well as offer lifestyle recommendations or prescribe medications that can help treat the underlying cause of your shortness of breath," explains Dr. Safdar.

For instance, if you are diagnosed with asthma, your doctor may prescribe an inhaler and recommend you quit smoking (if you smoke) and avoid other lung irritants.

"One thing to note is that smoking includes anything that results in smoke leaving your mouth — vaping and hookah included," adds Dr. Safdar.

If shortness of breath continues to progress despite lifestyle modifications and treatment, your doctor may refer you to a pulmonologist or cardiologist, depending on the source of your shortness of breath.

"Some of the more serious or advanced causes of shortness of breath, such as COPD or heart failure, are best treated by a specialist. A pulmonologist or cardiologist can run the more in-depth tests needed to fully understand your condition and identify the most effective way(s) to manage it," explains Dr. Safdar. "The goal is always to protect your health, but it's also about getting you back to a place where you can be active and enjoy the things you love again."

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Categories: When Should I Worry About...
Tags: Pulmonology, Emergency Medicine, Heart & Vascular

I Can't Take a Deep Breath: Causes, Treatments, and Outlook

What is dyspnea?

A disruption in your regular breathing patterns can be alarming. Feeling as though you can’t take a deep breath is known in the medical community as dyspnea. Other ways to describe this symptom are hunger for air, shortness of breath, and chest tightening. Dyspnea is a symptom of many different health conditions, and it may come on rapidly or develop over time.

All cases of dyspnea warrant a visit to the doctor to diagnose the underlying cause and determine the proper treatment. Severe dyspnea that occurs rapidly and affects your overall functioning requires immediate medical attention.

Dyspnea is a symptom of a variety of conditions. Approximately 85 percent of cases of dyspnea are related to:

  • asthma
  • congestive heart failure
  • myocardial ischemia, or reduced blood flow to the heart that’s usually due to blockage that can lead to a heart attack
  • chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)
  • interstitial lung disease
  • pneumonia
  • psychogenic disorders, such as anxiety

Many of the conditions associated with dyspnea relate to the heart and lungs. This is because these organs are responsible for circulating oxygen and taking away carbon dioxide throughout your body. Heart and lung conditions can alter these processes, leading to a shortness of breath.

There are other heart and lung conditions associated with dyspnea aside from the most common ones listed above.

Heart conditions include:

  • angina
  • pulmonary edema (from congestive heart failure)
  • acute valvular disease
  • heart attack
  • cardiac tamponade
  • low blood pressure

Lung conditions include:

  • lung cancer
  • pulmonary hypertension
  • sleep apnea
  • pulmonary embolism
  • anaphylaxis
  • collapsed lung
  • acute respiratory distress syndrome
  • bronchiectasis
  • pleural effusion
  • non-cardiogenic pulmonary edema

Dyspnea is not only related to the heart and lungs. Other conditions and factors can lead to the symptom, such as:

  • anemia
  • carbon monoxide exposure
  • high altitude
  • very low or high temperatures
  • obesity
  • vigorous exercise

Just as dyspnea can occur for different reasons, the onset of the symptom can differ.

You may suddenly experience dyspnea. This requires immediate medical attention. Conditions that can cause a quick onset of dyspnea include asthma, anxiety, or a heart attack.

Conversely, you may have chronic dyspnea. This is when shortness of breath lasts beyond a month. You may experience long-term dyspnea because of COPD, obesity, or another condition.

You may have several accompanying symptoms with dyspnea. These additional symptoms can help you and your doctor diagnose its underlying cause. If you experience a cough, the dyspnea may be caused by a condition in your lungs. If you feel the symptom as chest pains, the doctor may test for heart conditions. Your doctor may discover symptoms outside of the heart and lungs that cause the dyspnea as well.

Symptoms that occur alongside dyspnea include:

  • heart palpitations
  • weight loss
  • crackling in the lungs
  • wheezing
  • night sweats
  • swollen feet and ankles
  • labored breathing when lying flat
  • high fever
  • chills
  • cough
  • long-term shortness of breath that becomes worse

Be sure to make a list of any symptoms you experience with dyspnea so you can share them with your doctor.

You should get medical attention immediately if you experience:

  • a sudden shortness of breath that interferes with your ability to function
  • loss of consciousness
  • chest pain
  • nausea

Dyspnea is a symptom that can cover a range of health conditions. Therefore, your doctor’s appointment may range in scope. Generally, your doctor will:

Take a medical history

This will include discussing information such as:

  • your current state of health and your symptoms
  • chronic and prior medical conditions and surgeries
  • medications you use
  • your smoking habits
  • your family history
  • recent surgeries
  • your working environment

Perform a physical examination

This will include:

  • taking your vital signs
  • recording your current weight
  • noting your appearance
  • measuring your peak flow and pulse oximetry
  • examining your lungs, neck veins, and heart

The physical examination may include other measurements and observations based on your doctor’s findings.

Conduct tests

Your doctor will conduct tests depending on your history and physical examination. Some baseline tests may include:

  • chest X-ray
  • electrocardiogram
  • spirometry
  • blood tests

If the previous tests are inconclusive, you may need more extensive testing, including:

  • comprehensive pulmonary function tests
  • echocardiography
  • computed tomography
  • ventilation/perfusion scanning
  • stress tests

Dyspnea can usually be treated by identifying and treating the condition that is causing it. During the time it takes for your doctor to diagnose the condition, you may receive interventions like oxygen and ventilation assistance to relive the symptom.

Treatments for dyspnea may include:

  • removing the airway blockage
  • eliminating mucus
  • reducing airway inflammation
  • alleviating the body’s hunger for air

Your doctor may prescribe medications to relieve symptoms. These may include steroids for asthma, antibiotics for pneumonia, or another medication related to your underlying condition. You may also need supplemental oxygen. In some cases, surgical intervention may be necessary to alleviate dyspnea.

There are additional treatments for dyspnea that go beyond medical interventions. Your doctor may recommend that you try breathing exercises. These can strengthen your lung functioning as well as help you combat dyspnea when it arises in your daily life.

If you experience dyspnea chronically, you should discuss lifestyle modifications that may alleviate it. These changes may reduce the occurrence of dyspnea and include:

  • losing weight
  • treating medical conditions
  • quitting smoking
  • avoiding environmental triggers like allergens and toxic air
  • staying in low-elevation areas (lower than 5,000 feet)
  • monitoring any equipment or medications you may be using

Dyspnea is a symptom of an underlying medical condition or the result of another trigger. This symptom should be taken seriously and requires a visit to your doctor.

The outlook for dyspnea depends on the underlying condition that is causing it.

Shortness of breath and shortness of breath: causes and treatment

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02. 05.2021



Information was checked by an expert

Abramova Irina Petrovna

Cardiologist, a therapist, a gunsuator, a therapist of preventive medicine, 37 years of work experience

Low for air-a pathological state. Not only elderly people complain about it, but also patients aged 16 and over. If breathing is difficult for a long period, then such an anomaly can threaten the life of the patient. Doctors often consider shortness of breath as a symptom of a serious illness. How to quickly cope with suffocation is often known only to patients with bronchial asthma. Their difficulty in breathing is stopped by the use of inhalers.


The information in this section should not be used for self-diagnosis or self-treatment. In case of pain or other exacerbation of the disease, only the attending physician should prescribe diagnostic tests. For diagnosis and proper treatment, you should contact a specialist.

Difficulty breathing symptoms

Since shortness of breath is caused by a wide range of pathologies, there are many symptoms of difficult breathing. Most often, patients complain about:

  • sensation of a lump, bones in the throat;
  • suffocating cough;
  • anxiety, panic attacks;
  • dizziness;
  • fatigue;
  • weakness in the limbs.

If a person does not have enough air, he becomes inhibited. This is especially noticeable in the process of communication. The patient does not always understand the questions the first time, he answers with a slowdown.

When is it difficult to take a deep breath?

The patient may experience shortness of breath when inhaling both during wakefulness and at night. If there is not enough air during sleep, then the following symptoms are often diagnosed:

  • central apnea;
  • Cheyne-Stokes;
  • obstructive sleep apnea.

Difficulty breathing: main causes

Osteochondrosis of the thoracic and cervical regions is often the cause of difficult breathing and lack of air. Accompanying symptoms include: Accompanying symptoms include throbbing pain in the chest, neck, radiating to the heart, shoulder, limited bending, dizziness, darkening of the eyes, ringing in the ears. Difficulty breathing in case of osteochondrosis is caused by pinched nerves by pathologically altered vertebrae. Innervation occurs in the esophagus, pharynx.

The main causes of pain are:

  • Foreign body, abnormally overgrown tissue in the path of air passage.
  • Allergic reactions.
  • Overweight, obesity of varying degrees.
  • Physical inactivity.
  • Hernias.
  • Smoking.

The reasons why breathing is difficult are usually associated with pathologies of the respiratory, cardiovascular and endocrine systems. Also, a similar condition can cause psychosomatic disorders. Lack of air can appear during physical exertion, psychological overstrain. With increased production of adrenaline, the central nervous system is excited. Respiratory muscles are contracted intensely, resulting in difficulty with normal breathing. When inhaling, breathing is difficult due to inflammatory processes in the lungs, bronchi. Usually the symptom goes away after the underlying disease is cured. If the condition is associated with cardiovascular pathologies, then an integrated approach to the problem is required.

Difficulty Breathing Diagnosis

If you experience breathing problems, see a physician. He should take a history and conduct a physical examination. Estimated:

  • how long the patient has difficulty breathing;
  • the presence of wheezing;
  • progression of the condition;
  • shortness of breath at rest and during exercise;
  • the presence of injuries.

Physical examination does not always give an accurate picture. Then resort to additional methods of examination:

Diagnosis of difficulty breathing
Diagnostic Method Time
Complete blood count 15-30 minutes
Chest x-ray 10 minutes
Chest CT 20 minutes
ECG 20 minutes
Spirometry 20 minutes

After seeing a therapist and diagnosing, you may need the help of a specialist.

Which doctor can help?

If you have trouble breathing, see a doctor in the following specialty:

Our specialists

Suvan-ool Marina Anatolyevna

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m. at the reception

Abramova Irina Petrovna

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Goncharova Ekaterina Olegovna

Where the doctor takes:

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Vlasova Svetlana Sergeevna

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Cheremisina Anna Yuryevna

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Myasnikova Natalia Petrovna

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Buchina Anaida Valerievna

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After the examination, the doctor will prescribe the necessary diagnostics in your case. Some diseases are difficult to diagnose as they say "by eye". Therefore, you need to trust the doctor when prescribing research. After all the tests, the doctor will be able to draw up the correct course of treatment. Remember: accurate diagnosis and correct diagnosis are already 50% of success in treatment!

Please note!

Difficulty breathing without fail requires the help of specialists. An emergency call to the doctor is necessary for:

  • soreness, pressure in the chest;
  • shortness of breath even at rest;
  • the ability to fall asleep only in a sitting position;
  • wheezing, whistling during inhalation-exhalation;
  • difficulty swallowing;
  • sensation of a foreign body in the throat;
  • allergic factors.

Shortness of breath can be prevented by preventive measures. Recommended:

  • give up bad habits;
  • go in for sports;
  • avoid exposure to negative environmental factors;
  • undergo annual examinations.

Patients who have a predisposition to the development of anomalies of the musculoskeletal, cardiovascular, respiratory systems are especially susceptible to the appearance of shortness of breath.

Treatment by the best doctors in Moscow

Moscow medical centers and clinics can solve the problem of shortness of breath. If the lack of air is severe, seek emergency help. A modern diagnostic center allows you to determine the cause of an unhealthy condition with 100% accuracy. Conservative and surgical treatment can also be carried out.

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Remember that only a qualified doctor can make an accurate diagnosis, determine the causes and nature of the disease, and prescribe effective treatment. You can make an appointment with our specialists on the website or by phone 8 (495) 255-37-37.

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  • Garashchenko T.I. Obstructed nasal breathing in children: diagnosis and principles of treatment [Electronic resource] // Pediatrics. Journal them. G. N. Speransky. 2008
  • Krupichka K.S., Agaltsov M.V., Myasnikov R.P., Drapkina O.M. Breathing disorders during sleep in patients with chronic heart failure: classification, epidemiology and pathophysiology [Electronic resource] // Russian Journal of Cardiology. 2021
  • Panferova N. E. Hypodynamia and the cardiovascular system // Nauka Publishing House. 1977
  • Latysheva T.V. Immunotropic drugs in the complex therapy of patients with severe bronchial asthma [Electronic resource] // Attending physician. 2002
  • Fahisham T. Difficulty in Breathing and Airway Management [Electronic resource] // Conference: MAPPAC Volunteer training. 2020

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How to check the lungs: types of diagnostics

The information in this section should not be used for self-diagnosis or self-treatment. In case of pain or other exacerbation of the disease, only the attending physician should prescribe diagnostic tests. For diagnosis and proper treatment, you should contact your doctor.

Many of us are faced with a respiratory test only in the form of an annual picture for admission to work or study. But if you are worried about chest pains, coughing and difficulty breathing, you need to think about how how to check the lungs and bronchi for diseases.

When should you consider a chest check?

An ordinary person needs to do a fluorography and check the condition of the lungs once a year. For some categories of citizens, for example, those working in educational institutions with children, they are required to do this twice a year. This is necessary for the early detection of patients with tuberculosis, a disease that is rapidly spreading in the community.

In addition to prevention, it is also necessary to check the lungs at the first signs of illness. These include:

  • shortness of breath at rest,
  • long bouts of cough: dry or interspersed with blood and pus in sputum,
  • wheezing and whistling during breathing,
  • feeling of heaviness in the chest,
  • feeling of heaviness in the chest,
  • appetite.

A lung check is usually ordered by your doctor. Only a specialist will be able to assess the symptoms and determine which type of diagnosis is suitable in your case. But there are cases in which a doctor can be visited with ready-made materials:

  • You have had a relapse of an illness that you already know about.
  • Symptoms are not pronounced, there is no acute pain syndrome.

In any case, if you show the doctor the pictures you have already taken, this will speed up the diagnosis.

Lung check is included in the full body examination.

Chest diagnostic options

Diagnostics available without referral are limited to non-invasive methods. Endoscopy without a conclusion from the attending physician will not be performed for you. But even so, there are a lot of types of diagnostics:

  • Ultrasound cannot show you lung disease. Usually it is used to detect fluid in the pleural cavity, therefore, if you do not know your diagnosis, it makes no sense to go for ultrasound .
  • Fluorography : The fastest way to examine the lungs. During the procedure, the chest is scanned with a low dose of x-rays. The image is printed on film or displayed on a monitor. Its undoubted advantage is safety: FLG for prevention is given to children from 14 years old. However, pathology can be detected in the resulting image, but cannot be considered in detail. Most likely, after fluorography, the doctor will refer you to a more detailed study - CT scan of the lungs.
  • X-ray means higher radiation doses. An x-ray will give a high quality image, in which you can clearly see all the details. The result will be printed on film. But doctors do not recommend such an examination often, as you can get a large dose of radiation.

Tomography as a way to check the lungs

A more accurate and safer way to check the lungs is tomography. It gives a highly accurate result on the condition of the lung tissue and mediastinal organs.

LDCT of the lungs is now gaining more and more authority. is a low-dose computed tomography. This study is ten times more informative than fluorography and radiography, and its radiation dose is lower.

Multispiral Computed Tomography of the Lungs also works with x-rays and therefore should not be performed on pregnant or breastfeeding women. MSCT is prescribed to prepare the patient for surgery or evaluate the results of surgery. It can be performed both without contrast and with contrast enhancement.

With this type of examination, you can track abnormalities, detect chest injuries, neoplasms in the early stages and inflammatory diseases. Using this method, you can see pathological changes in the lungs, bronchi and trachea on a 3D image. A detailed picture helps the doctor to make an unmistakable diagnosis.

Computed tomography is prescribed to detect:

  • tuberculosis,
  • sarcoidosis,
  • lung abscess,
  • lung cancer,
  • inflammatory diseases of the lungs, bronchi, pleura,
  • foreign bodies,
  • lymphoproliferative diseases,
  • pathologies of the mediastinal organs.

CT is also monitored to monitor the postoperative and preoperative state of the problem organ.

Invasive lung tests

There are a number of examinations that even paid centers perform only as directed. These are endoscopic methods. Thanks to them, you can examine the organs in detail and take tissue samples for analysis, and in some cases, immediately treat them. These surveys include:

  • Bronchoscopy : the endoscope is inserted through the nasopharynx. You can examine the trachea and bronchi.
  • Thoracoscopy is the insertion of a transducer directly into the lungs through punctures in the chest. This study is performed only under general anesthesia.
  • Thoracotomy is an incision in the chest so that the doctor can independently examine all the organs.
  • Puncture of the pleural cavity and biopsy of the pleura will help to find the cause of inflammation, test for antibodies to malignant tumors and determine the infection.

Your doctor will refer you to these examinations if needed. However, such examinations are sent only in rather severe cases, so most likely if you have problems with the lungs, you will need a fluorography, x-ray or tomography.


  1. Averyanov, A.V. Rare lung diseases: diagnosis and treatment / A.V. Averyanov, V.N. Lesnyak, E.A. Kogan; ed. A.V. Averyanov. - Moscow: MIA, 2016.

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