Why is it so hard to breathe

Breathing Problems | Shortness of Breath

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When you're short of breath, it's hard or uncomfortable for you to take in the oxygen your body needs. You may feel as if you're not getting enough air. Sometimes you can have mild breathing problems because of a stuffy nose or intense exercise. But shortness of breath can also be a sign of a serious disease.

Many conditions can make you feel short of breath:

  • Lung conditions such as asthma, emphysema, or pneumonia
  • Problems with your trachea or bronchi, which are part of your airway system
  • Heart disease can make you feel breathless if your heart cannot pump enough blood to supply oxygen to your body
  • Anxiety and panic attacks
  • Allergies

If you often have trouble breathing, it is important to find out the cause.

  • Breathlessness (American Thoracic Society) - PDF
  • Shortness of Breath (American Academy of Family Physicians) Also in Spanish
  • Shortness of Breath (American Heart Association)
  • Shortness of Breath (Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research) Also in Spanish
  • Blood Oxygen Level (National Library of Medicine) Also in Spanish
  • Bronchoscopy and Bronchoalveolar Lavage (BAL) (National Library of Medicine) Also in Spanish
  • Lung Function Tests (National Library of Medicine) Also in Spanish
  • Respiratory Pathogens Panel (National Library of Medicine) Also in Spanish
  • Shortness of Breath (American Academy of Family Physicians) Also in Spanish
  • Spirometry (Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research)
  • Sputum Culture (National Library of Medicine) Also in Spanish
  • Tests for Lung Disease (National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute) Also in Spanish
  • V/Q Scan (National Library of Medicine)
  • Wheezing (Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research) Also in Spanish
  • Dyspnea during Advanced Cancer (National Cancer Institute) Also in Spanish
  • How to Properly Put On, Take Off a Disposable Respirator (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) - PDF Also in Spanish
  • Thoracic Insufficiency Syndrome (Scoliosis Research Society)
  • Hypoxemia (Low Blood Oxygen) (Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research) Also in Spanish
  • Obesity Hypoventilation Syndrome (National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute)
  • ClinicalTrials. gov: Dyspnea (National Institutes of Health)
  • Article: Comparing research recruitment strategies to prospectively identify patients presenting with breathlessness. ..
  • Article: Hierarchical stratification of the factors related to exertional dyspnoea and exercise...
  • Article: Research race-specific reference values and lung function impairment, breathlessness and prognosis:. ..
  • Breathing Problems -- see more articles
  • American Lung Association
  • National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute
  • Breath-Holding Spells (Nemours Foundation) Also in Spanish
  • Transient Tachypnea of the Newborn (TTN) (Nemours Foundation) Also in Spanish
  • Eldercare at Home: Breathing Problems (AGS Foundation for Health in Aging)

Trouble Breathing: 7 Surprising Reasons

Written by Stephanie Booth

In this Article

  • Anemia
  • Anxiety
  • Allergies
  • Infection
  • Hookworms
  • Myasthenia Gravis
  • Cancer

If you feel winded without even breaking a sweat, heart or lung disease could be to blame, but they’re not the only causes. Some health problems that don’t seem related to your lungs can make it hard to breathe.


Red blood cells help carry oxygen throughout your body. Iron is key to this process, but sometimes you don’t get enough in your food or your body has trouble absorbing it. This can lead to a condition called anemia.

Warning signs: Besides shortness of breath and chest pain, you may feel tired, weak, and dizzy. Some people get pale skin and cold hands and feet.

What helps? Your doctor may suggest you eat more iron-rich foods (lean meats, beans, dark leafy greens), take supplements, or get more vitamin C, which helps your body absorb more iron. People with severe anemia may need a transfusion of red blood cells. Learn more about anemia treatments.


When you’re stressed or worried, the muscles that help you breathe tighten. This makes you breathe faster than normal. You may feel like you’re not getting enough air, which can make you panic and make your breathing even shallower.

Warning signs: Sweating, chest pain, feeling faint. Some people feel like they have a lump in their throat.

What helps? Try to stay calm. Sit or lie down and relax your shoulders as much as you can. Breathe in through your nose for 4 seconds, and out through pursed lips (like you’re blowing out a candle) for 8. This can help bring your breath back to normal. Watch a video on breathing exercises for anxiety.


Pollen, mold, and other allergens do more than cause itchy eyes and a runny nose. They can also irritate the airways in your lungs. This can trigger an asthma attack and make it hard for you to take normal breaths.

Warning signs: Coughing, wheezing, chest tightness. Symptoms may last a few minutes or several days.

What helps? An inhaler can help relax the airways right away. Long-term medicines will stop you from reacting as much to your allergy triggers. Read more on allergic asthma treatments.


If germs come into your body through your nose and mouth, they can travel to your lungs and cause an infection. This is called pneumonia. Anyone can get it, but you’re at higher risk if your immune system is weak, you have a lung disease like asthma, or you smoke.

Warning signs: Chest pain, fever, chills, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, chest pain. You may also bring up thick mucus when you cough.

What helps? The problem usually gets better with antibiotics. But some people need to go into the hospital for treatments that help their lungs fully heal. Find out what to expect with pneumonia treatment.


You can catch this parasite by walking barefoot through infected soil or by drinking or eating food that has hookworm eggs in it. Once hookworms get inside you, they grow in your intestines and feed on your blood. Over time, that makes your body have fewer red blood cells.

Warning signs: Weakness, feeling tired, stomach pain, diarrhea, weight loss. If a child has hookworm, their physical and mental growth may be slowed.

What helps? Hookworms are easy to treat. Your doctor will prescribe a few days of medicine that gets rid of the worms. Learn more about hookworms and hookworm infection.

Myasthenia Gravis

It’s a problem with your immune system, called an autoimmune disorder. It prevents your nerves and muscles from “talking” to each other like they should. As a result, the muscles throughout your body get weak.

Warning signs: Many people first show symptoms of it in their eyes. You may notice a drooping eyelid or double vision. Other signs may be trouble with speaking, swallowing, or smiling, feeling tired, and weakness in your arms and legs.

What helps? For a few people, symptoms go away on their own. But most need drugs to get your nerves and muscles “talking” again. Some people feel better if doctors remove their thymus gland, a central part of the immune system. Get more information on myasthenia gravis.


Some types of cancer cause fluid to build up in the space between your lungs and chest wall. This can make it painful to take a deep breath.

Warning signs: Feeling like there’s a weight on your chest, coughing, fever. You may also feel rundown and tired.

What helps: Your doctor could prescribe a drug that eases swelling or helps your body get rid of extra fluid. In some cases, they’ll need to remove the fluid and treat the area so it doesn’t fill again. Read more about what causes fluid around your lungs.

Why is it difficult to breathe? 16 possible causes

Breathing is such a natural process that we are used to not noticing it. But any problems with it immediately cause panic. There are a lot of reasons why it becomes difficult to breathe, and not all of them are dangerous to health.

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.

How dangerous is breathing difficulty?

Short-term shortness of breath is an adaptation of our body that does not cause harm. Another thing is if breathing is difficult for no apparent reason or is accompanied by other symptoms: chest pain, heart rhythm disturbance, coughing for several minutes or more. This may be a sign of a serious problem and requires immediate medical attention.

Why is it difficult to breathe?

Temporary causes of difficulty in breathing

  1. Shortness of breath after physical activity is completely normal. This is how the body reacts to the increased load. Breathing is usually restored in one to two minutes.
  2. Emotional stress is a common cause of respiratory failure. It becomes frequent and superficial, the heartbeat quickens. The discomfort will go away on its own after a while.
  3. Being in a stuffy room or in the highlands. Due to stuffiness or low pressure, a person begins to breathe more often in order to get the right amount of oxygen.

Diseases of the heart and circulatory system that cause respiratory problems

All heart diseases cause shortness of breath for one reason - hypoxia, or lack of oxygen. But they have different effects on the body.

  • Coronary artery disease is a disease based on a conflict: the myocardium (heart muscle) receives less oxygen than it needs due to damage to the coronary arteries (vessels that feed the myocardium).
  • Arrhythmia - violation of the heart rhythm. Blood moves through the body or too slowly, and does not have time to bring oxygen to the tissues. Or too quickly, not having time to increase the oxygen content in the vessels of the lungs.
  • Defects and heart failure also lead to stagnation of blood, its insufficient circulation.

Heart disease is easy to recognize. In addition to shortness of breath, the patient feels pain in the chest, his limbs swell and turn blue. These symptoms are clear to the doctor and facilitate the diagnosis.

Read on the topic: Can the heart hurt?

Diseases of the lungs and respiratory tract

Any disease in which the lumen of the airways narrows, leads to difficulty breathing.

  1. Foreign bodies in the nasal cavity, pharynx, bronchi interfere with the flow of air. Breathing becomes frequent, loud and less deep, panic appears. In this situation, emergency assistance is needed.
  2. Pneumo- and hydrothorax is an accumulation of gas or liquid in the pleura of the lungs. In addition to frequent breathing, other symptoms are also present - dry cough, rapid heartbeat, tears and a feeling of panic fear.
  3. Tumors and cysts can both narrow the airway (if located in the nasopharynx) and disrupt the oxygen exchange itself (if located in the lungs).
  4. Bronchial asthma - during its attacks there is a sharp narrowing of the bronchial lumen in response to an allergen, stress, lack of air.
  5. Respiratory disease also reduces the ability to breathe freely.

Read on: How to check the lungs?

Diseases of the nervous system that interfere with breathing

Diseases of the nervous system during which breathing is difficult may be associated with pathologies of the brain, spine and peripheral nerves.

  1. Brain damage: trauma, neoplasm, stroke, encephalitis . They can lead to difficulty breathing due to disruption of the respiratory center. Breathing is controlled by the brain, and problems in its work can lead to too frequent or rare breathing, and in severe cases, to stop it altogether.
  2. Intercostal neuralgia causes severe pain on chest movement. To avoid discomfort, the patient breathes rarely and superficially.
  3. Curved spine can put pressure on nerves and blood vessels. And this will already cause bronchospasm, narrowing of the lumen of the arteries or pain when trying to take a deep breath.

Doctors often include respiratory disorders associated with neuroses or tantrums here. However, they are easily removed with sedatives and do not indicate a separate disease, but need the advice of a neurologist and / or psychotherapist.


  1. Chesnokova N.P., Brill G.E., Polutova N.V. Types of respiratory disorders: etiology and pathogenesis / Scientific review. Medical Sciences, 2017. - No. 2 - p. 49-51
  2. Balashova M.E., Shemetova G.N. Risk factors for respiratory diseases among young people: detection and correction / Prevention of diseases and promotion of health. - 2014, No. 6. - S. 12-14.
  3. Chuchalin A.G. Clinical guidelines / Pulmonology. 2nd edition. - M.: GEOTAR-Media, 2016. - 336 p.
  4. Vagin Yu. E. Irregularity of the rhythm of breathing as an indicator of emotional stress // Sechenovskiy vestnik. – 2015. Ref.
  5. Doletsky A.A., Shchekochikhin D.Yu., Maksimov M.L. Differential diagnosis of dyspnea in clinical practice // Regular issues of BC. – 2014. reference
  6. Chuchalin A.G. Shortness of breath: pathophysiological and clinical aspects // Regular issues of "BC", No. 21. – 2021. reference

Need to know breath lungs nervous system heart


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Why is it hard to breathe, not enough air

0002 If inhaling or exhaling is difficult, a doctor is urgently needed.



When to call an ambulance

People can live without air for only a few minutes. Therefore, in case of a sudden respiratory failure, you need to dial 103 or 112 as soon as possible. Otherwise, acute respiratory failure will develop, due to which brain cells will begin to die. It is indicated by the following additional signs:

  • the person becomes lethargic or loses consciousness;
  • he began to choke while eating;
  • cough that gets worse and the person cannot move or lie down;
  • foam or blood from mouth due to coughing;
  • skin turns blue;
  • sore chest that it is impossible to breathe;
  • colic appeared in the stomach;
  • reddened and swollen joints;
  • swollen lips, eyelids, forehead and scalp.

Why it's hard to breathe

Breathing problems can come on gradually, get worse with exertion or excitement, and often have relatively innocuous causes. We have already talked about them.

But sometimes a person cannot breathe in or out normally due to dangerous conditions that require help as soon as possible.

Severe allergies

Some foods, drugs or chemicals cause allergies. Moreover, at the first contact, a person will not have symptoms, and upon repeated contact, a complex cascade of immune reactions is triggered, due to which a rapid edema of the subcutaneous tissue develops. In mild forms of allergies, lacrimation, a rash on the body, or spots of urticaria appear. But in severe cases, Quincke's edema or anaphylactic shock develops. At the same time, the tissues of the larynx swell, so breathing is suddenly disturbed, and the voice becomes hoarse.

What to do

Severe allergies can lead to rapid death. Therefore, you need to urgently call an ambulance. Do not take any medication without consulting a doctor.

When the condition improves, the allergist will order an examination. It is necessary to find a substance that causes such a reaction.

Foreign body

In adults, foreign objects enter the respiratory tract much less frequently than in children. But sometimes it happens while eating or with careless handling of small parts. For example, when making repairs, some people like to hold nails with their lips, and when sewing, pins. The awkward movement can cause metal objects to be swallowed or lodged in the larynx.

Foreign bodies, whether they are food or small things, create a mechanical obstruction to the intake of air. Sometimes when batteries are swallowed, a chemical burn of the mucous membrane develops. Therefore, in response to irritation of the tissues of the respiratory tract, edema appears, it is difficult to inhale or exhale.

What to do

If a child or adult has swallowed a small object, has difficulty breathing and is unable to speak, but is conscious, they need urgent help. The airway can be cleared using the Heimlich maneuver. Act like this:

  • stand behind the casualty and wrap your arms around him;
  • Clench one hand into a fist and place it in the middle between the navel and ribs, and place the other on top;
  • make 6-10 sharp thrusts into the abdomen in an upward direction, as if squeezing air out of the stomach.
Evolution and evolvability / Wikimedia Commons

Please note: this method should not be used on children under one year of age and pregnant women. Women are given pushes in the chest area, and the baby is held head down and knocked on the back.

Even if after first aid a person coughs or vomits, you still need to call an ambulance.

Panic attack

Feeling of tightness in the throat, lack of air may occur during a panic attack. There are some of the additional symptoms:

  • palpitations;
  • feeling of fear;
  • sweating;
  • trembling and chills;
  • abdominal cramps or nausea;
  • headache;
  • dizziness;
  • disorientation in space.
What to do

Panic attacks are not life-threatening, but prevent you from doing your usual activities or work. Therefore, when the first symptoms appear, you need to call an ambulance, and after the condition improves, contact a psychotherapist or psychiatrist.

Chemical irritation

Severe respiratory problems may occur after inhalation of hot smoke or fumes from various chemicals. This condition is associated with chemical and sometimes thermal burns of the mucous membrane. Cough, shortness of breath, dizziness, confusion may appear minutes or hours after exposure to an irritant.

What to do

The person needs to call an ambulance as soon as possible. Doctors will give him oxygen to breathe. If the swelling of the larynx increases, a special tube will be installed to improve ventilation of the lungs and medications will be prescribed to reduce bronchospasm.

Papillomatosis of the larynx

If respiratory problems develop gradually over several years, it is possible that this is papillomatosis of the larynx. This is a benign growth on the mucous membrane that causes human papillomavirus (HPV) types 6, 11, 16 and 18.

Breathing problems do not appear immediately. First, a person notices that his voice becomes hoarse, and his breathing is noisy and wheezing. Then joins a chronic cough, pain when swallowing, often worried about pneumonia or colds. Sometimes a doctor may mistakenly diagnose chronic laryngitis or bronchitis.

What to do

If breathing becomes difficult, see a physician. He will conduct an examination and, if necessary, refer you to a pulmonologist. The specialist will do a bronchoscopy - examine the airways using a flexible tube with a video camera. This will help confirm or refute papillomatosis of the larynx.

An operation is performed to get rid of the disease. Otherwise, the growths can spread lower, to the trachea, completely close the lumen of the throat, and you will have to insert a rigid tube from the outside. This is called a tracheostomy. The device will remain in the throat until surgical treatment is possible.

Cancer of the larynx or lungs

If difficulty in breathing develops over several years, accompanied by chest pain, coughing up blood, severe weight loss, it is possible that it is cancer of the lungs or larynx. The disease often occurs in people who smoke, but sometimes a tumor is found in those who have never held cigarettes in their hands.

What to do

If you experience these symptoms, you should make an appointment with a general practitioner. He'll send you for a chest X-ray. If the suspicions are confirmed, you will be prescribed treatment depending on the stage and type of cancer.

Pneumonia, including those caused by coronavirus

Pneumonia, or pneumonia, is caused by bacteria and viruses, including coronavirus. Symptoms are expressed differently for everyone - sometimes it is a slight malaise or, conversely, a serious condition in which urgent help is needed. Signs of pneumonia are as follows:

  • elevated body temperature, but in the elderly it may be below normal;
  • chills, sweating;
  • weakness and fatigue;
  • cough, with or without sputum;
  • shortness of breath and chest pain - difficulty breathing in and out.
What to do

Call your doctor if you have symptoms of pneumonia. He will prescribe a treatment that includes antibiotics, expectorants. If the condition worsens, the patient will be referred to the hospital.

Heart disease

In heart failure, a person has a circulatory disorder, due to which fluid accumulates in the lungs and edema appears. This condition leads to the development of cardiac asthma. It is characterized by:

  • cough;
  • shortness of breath;
  • rales in the lungs.

Respiratory failure occurs gradually, over several hours or days.

What to do

Call an ambulance at the first sign of a pathology. In the meantime, the doctors are going to seat the victim in a comfortable position, unfasten tight clothes. If a person is aware of their illness and is carrying emergency medicines, help them find them.

Bronchial asthma

This is a chronic disease in which a lot of mucus is produced in the lungs in response to the action of an allergen or other irritant, which narrows the lumen of the bronchi. Therefore, a person has shortness of breath - he takes a breath with a whistle and exhales heavily. At the same time, a cough with a lot of sputum worries.

The disease progresses with periods of exacerbation, so patients carry an inhaler and other medicines with them. But sometimes an asthma attack is very strong and does not disappear after using the right drugs, but gets worse and worse. This condition can lead to respiratory arrest and death.

What to do

Call 911 immediately if you have symptoms for the first time or if a person diagnosed with asthma does not get better after taking medication.

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease

In people who have been smoking for many years, the elasticity of the lung tissue decreases and it cannot perform its function. This is how chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) occurs. She has the following symptoms:

  • shortness of breath, which develops gradually and worsens with physical exertion;
  • chest tightness;
  • wheezing;
  • chronic cough with sputum;
  • weight loss in advanced stages.
What to do

If you have symptoms of COPD, see your doctor. He will recommend quitting smoking and prescribe medications to dilate the bronchi.

Pulmonary thromboembolism

A person with varicose veins can develop blood clots. If they come off, they are able to get into the pulmonary artery and clog its lumen. In this case, the blood flow in the lungs stops and suddenly there is a violation of breathing, chest pain and coughing. sometimes bloody sputum is produced. This condition can lead to death.

What to do

Call an ambulance if any of these symptoms appear. After the condition improves, the phlebologist will prescribe treatment for varicose veins to prevent the recurrence of pulmonary embolism.

Pulmonary hypertension

Increased pressure in the arteries of the lungs and right heart chamber is called pulmonary hypertension. This condition develops slowly over several years. It is caused by congenital and acquired heart defects, COPD, pulmonary embolism, and certain diseases of the internal organs, such as tumors that compress blood vessels in the chest, inflammatory pathologies of blood vessels or the heart, or kidney disease.

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