What is breathlessness?

Breathlessness is a complex symptom which can range from an uncomfortable awareness of ones breathing to being extremely short of breath.

It can be caused by a multiple disease mechanism including but not limited to the respiratory and cardiovascular systems.

'Dyspnoea' is the medical term for breathlessness (which comes from the Greek for 'breathing difficulty') and it is classified into & 'acute' - a sudden attack, or & 'chronic' if it has been present for a long time.

How does breathlessness feel?

People who have suffered from breathlessness describe it in different ways...

  • Not able to take a 'full breath'
  • Breathing difficulty
  • Chest tightness
  • Being 'winded' or 'puffed'
  • Rapid breathing

What causes acute breathlessness?

Acute breathlessness can be caused by any of the following...

  • Anaphylaxis - severe allergic reaction
  • Anaemia - where the blood cannot carry enough oxygen around the body
  • Stress/Anxiety
  • Asthma
  • Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) - a chronic lung condition characterised by narrowed/inflamed airways (common in smokers)
  • Heart disease
  • Pulmonary embolism - a blood clot in the lungs
  • Lung infections
  • Medications - for example beta blockers and aspirin
  • Pneumonia
  • Pain
  • Pregnancy - breathlessness is relatively common in pregnant women after any physical activity or when lying down

What causes chronic breathlessness?

Chronic breathlessness can be caused by any of the following...

  • Anaemia (as above)
  • Asthma (as above)
  • Obesity (or being overweight)
  • COPD (see above)
  • Irregular heartbeat (arrhythmia)
  • Heart failure
  • Low levels of physical activity/fitness

What treatments are available for breathlessness?

Tests will indicate what is causing the breathlessness. It can be caused by problems with the lungs or the cardiac system (the heart and the arteries around the heart). Tests may include...

  • Breathing tests
  • Chest x-ray
  • Heart tests
  • Blood tests

Many cases of acute breathlessness are caused by general unfitness and some lifestyle choices, such as smoking. It is always a good idea to give up smoking, eat healthy food and take up some moderate exercise. Consult your doctor first if you have never exercised regularly before.