Shortness of Breath (Dyspnea): Symptoms & Signs

Shortness of breath or SOB, medically refers to Dyspnea. In medical terms, Dys means short or difficult and pnea means breathing.

Normally, a healthy individual breathes (breathe in and out) 18 to 20 times a minute. Below or above this rate is considered as abnormal breaths which leads to many parameters including retention of carbon dioxide known as “HYPERCAPNIA”.

This is very dangerous and insufficiency of oxygen at tissue level means no perfusion and oxygen is not supplied to tissues resulting in tissue necrosis known as “HYPOXIA”.

Moreover, insufficiency of oxygen in the blood vessel or oxygen deficiency at blood level means 0 perfusion at alveolar level known as “HYPOXEMIA”. It is a death threat and in some cases, if not treated right way, can be a death causing reason.

SOB mains refer to tightening, breathlessness and suffocation. It is a signal to many dangerous health issues.

This is the most uncomfortable condition because the air we breathe can’t get into the lungs properly. It leads to numerous death threatening illnesses including diseases of muscles and nervous system breakdown. 


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This condition is also caused by neuronal dysfunction. Defect in receptors like chemoreceptors, mechanoreceptors and lung receptors also lead to Shortness of breath. Mismatching of signals are of the leading cause which results in dyspnea which includes afferent and efferent signaling.

These receptors also help in signaling the brain for need of oxygen by the tissues and also signals the respiratory muscles and due to insufficiency they also get fatigue and leads to poor or loss of action in severe conditions.

Types of SOB

Shortness of breath is classified into 2 types:

-• Acute or sudden Dyspnea

-• Chronic or long term Dyspnea

Acute Dyspnea:

The type of dyspnea which starts suddenly with minutes and ends in a short period of time. These episodes have less duration. This comes with a warning signal from an upcoming disease. Sometimes it is an allergic reaction too or due to anxiety or tension. It occurs sometimes with fever, rash and cough (dry or with mucus).

Chronic Dyspnea:

Type of Dyspnea which is a part of your daily routine and you don’t recognize thame alarm. This condition continues with your everyday lifestyle like exercising, standing, sitting, talking, walking, laughing or climbing stairs like normal days and feeling out of breath. It happens due to illness rising inside either your lungs or heart which is not letting the required amount of air enter your air sacs. This gets worse with the physical activity.

Mostly people suffer from this at night, when sleeping, lying at supine position, talking or doing any muscular activity like exercise, running, jogging or climbing stairs.

What causes shortness of breath?

This condition gives rise to many dangerous diseases, for example:

  • Asthma           
  • Heart failure         
  • COPD        
  • Interstitial lung diseases 
  • Pneumothorax  
  • Anemia                  
  • TB             
  • Inhalation injury
  • Lung cancer      
  • Anxiety                 
  • Fibrosis    
  • Low blood pressure
  • Stenosis            
  • Arrhythmias        
  • Hypercapnia          
  • Hypoxia          
  • Hypoxemia

And multiple diseases are the causes of SOB.

In some cases, like normal individuals it is due to:

  • Cold 
  • Flu 
  • Anxiety 
  • Places with higher altitudes and lower oxygen levels 
  • Allergic reactions 
  • Carbon monoxide poisoning 
  • Anaphylactic reactions 
  • Obesity
  • Nasal congestion 
  • Panic attacks 
  • Phobias
  • History of years of smoking

Here are some symptoms, diagnosis, possible treatments or measures taken for SOB that can help you prevent from this disease.  

SYMPTOMS of Shortness of Breath:-

SOB is one of the most common cause of heart and lung illnesses which is followed by these signs :

  • Anxiety 
  • Chest pain / tightness 
  • Cough
  • Dizziness
  • Vertigo / fainting
  • Forced breathing
  • Wheezing
  • Pain in breathing
  • Sputum or blood with cough 
  • Cyanosis 
  • Altered mental status 
  • Hypoxemia 
  • Confusion

Not just sick but healthy people can also get difficulty in breathing; being over weight, aerobic exercise, being in a place with insufficient air or working in an area exposed to particles like asbestosis which leads to this kind of condition.

How is it Diagnosed?

Diagnosis of SOB is associated with what the underlying cause is. Whether its any phobia, suffocated place or anxiety.

You can get it diagnosed by yourself like,

  • If you’re having chest tightening or suffocation being in a specific place or anxiety try to come out of it 
  • If you’re having pain in breathing with bloody cough and episodes of chest pain (mild or stabbing) then rush towards the pulmonologist 
  • If you’ve any disorder or dysfunction going on 
  • Any clue regarding any heart or lung disease. Get it treated!

Multiple tests are also helpful in diagnosis of Shortness of Breath. This includes blood sample testing like; D-diamer, natriuretic peptide levels and for kidney function failure.

Imaging tests are also useful followed by blood tests in confirming various diseases like pneumothorax, fluid in lungs, enlargement of heart or any cancerous cell and what is the cause behind this condition of dyspnea. It also rules out hidden underlying causes. Such tests are:

  • Computerized Tomography ( CT ) Scans 
  • Chest X – ray

How can you treat SOB?

As the cause of SOB is treated, this difficulty gets well.

The treatment contains either medicines including opioids like; nebulised opioids and acting or sustained opioids or treated by therapies like

  • Oxygen Therapy
  • Cognitive Behavioral Therapy
  • Chest Physical Therapy 

And many home-based exercises and correction of positions like:

  • Sitting straight and forward
  • Standing with supported back or arms
  • Sleeping in relax position
  • Other changes in lifestyle

Take Away!

SOB can be a warning signal to many life-threatening problems and needs to be treated without delays. In most cases shortness of Breath is a sign for many hidden, elevating or upcoming heart or lung-related diseases or forwarding death causing disorders. In order to prevent these disorders SOB must be treated as soon as possible.