Why you may be short of breath and how to handle it

August 01, 2023 | by Samir Undevia, MD

Having a difficult time catching your breath? You may be experiencing dyspnea.

Dyspnea is a term used to describe shortness of breath. You may experience difficulty breathing due to a number of things, from an intense exercise routine to a sudden temperature change, or when traveling through a change in altitude.

But having shortness of breath can also be a sign of something more serious like pneumonia, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) or even lung cancer.

Dyspnea is one of the most common symptoms of lung cancer. Dyspnea occurs when your body is not taking in enough oxygen and your lungs are trying harder to draw in more air. It can feel like you are:

  • Breathing uncomfortably
  • Unable to get enough air
  • Drowning or suffocating

People with earlier-stage cancer who have a condition that affects the lungs or heart, such as a blood clot, may experience dyspnea, but it can also be caused by:

  • Airway obstruction
  • Pneumonia and other illnesses
  • Fluid buildup around the lungs (pleural effusion) or heart (pericardial effusion)
  • Stress and anxiety
  • Radiation pneumonitis, a possible side effect of radiation which inflames and damages lung tissue

If you are feeling like it is frequently hard for you to breathe or if breathlessness is waking you up at night, it is important to remain calm and contact your doctor.

If difficulty breathing is sudden and severe (especially if it does not improve with rest) or is accompanied by chest pain, call 911.

Your doctor can help determine the cause of your breathlessness by conducting an exam and reviewing your medical history. Your doctor will want to know when and how often you experience shortness of breath, and whether you are taking part in a specific activity when it happens.

Your doctor may also recommend strategies to relieve your symptoms. These can include:

  • Receiving extra oxygen
  • Sitting in front of a fan
  • Breathing cooler air by lowering the temperature in a room
  • Breathing cleaner air by opening a window, using a humidifier or getting rid of smoke and pet dander Getting a sense of open space (by seeing a view of the outside, opening windows, or being in an empty room)
  • Keeping your head lifted by using pillows Practicing techniques to take your focus away from the problem, such as relaxation techniques and meditation
  • Taking pain medications or anti-anxiety drugs

Improvements in diagnosis and treatment are helping people cope with shortness of breath, but because dyspnea can be caused by a variety of things, it is important to be evaluated by a physician to determine the exact cause and get proper treatment.

At Edward-Elmhurst Health, we provide low-dose CT lung screening for at-risk patients. This lung screening, designed to assist in early detection, can save lives of people at high risk for developing lung cancer. In the event of a suspicious finding, your scan will be reviewed by our team of lung cancer experts within our Multidisciplinary Thoracic Oncology Clinic. This process provides multiple, expert opinions in one setting to personalize your care.

Learn more about pulmonary services and cancer services at Edward-Elmhurst Health.

To find out if you’re at risk for lung disease, take a free, five-minute LungAware assessment.

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