Shortness of breath—also called dyspnea—goes beyond feeling a little winded after you’ve exerted yourself. Unlike the temporary breathlessness you may feel after engaging in strenuous exercise or traveling to a high altitude, unexplained dyspnea is a symptom that’s usually caused by an acute or chronic medical condition. Most often, chronic or recurrent shortness of breath signals a problem with your lungs or heart. Once your doctor has diagnosed the underlying cause, the American Thoracic Society suggests taking the following steps to help you control breathlessness:
1. Take your medication as prescribed. Conditions such as lung disease and heart failure often require daily medication, even if you feel you don’t need it. Make sure you understand how to use any prescription inhaler so the medicine reaches your lungs and doesn’t stick to the back of your throat. If you’re not getting enough oxygen, your doctor may prescribe supplemental oxygen in portable canisters to help you breathe more easily.
2. Learn breathing techniques. Breath training can improve control of breathing, decrease the amount of energy required to breathe, and improve position and function of the respiratory muscles. Techniques include diaphragmatic breathing (efficiently using the diaphragm to breathe instead of the muscles in the rib cage, neck, and abdomen), forward-bending posture (breathing while bending slightly forward from the waist), and pursed-lip breathing.
3. Build up your stamina. Though it might be hard to exercise while you’re short of breath, working out is one of the best things you can do for your heart and lungs. A daily walk or other exercise will strengthen the muscles you use to breathe and help your body use oxygen more efficiently. Always check with your doctor first.
4. Pace yourself. Avoid rushing to finish chores or activities; instead, do them in stages to help prevent bouts of breathlessness.
5. Try not to hold your breath. You may be holding your breath unconsciously, especially when doing activities such as lifting or even walking. Try to exhale two to three times longer than you inhale, but don’t force air out. Focus on exhaling during the exertion portion of any movement, especially when lifting. When you walk, inhale on one step, then exhale on two to three steps.
6. Sit in front of a fan. Positioning a fan to blow across your face when you feel short of breath can help ease breathlessness.
7. Ask about other medications. Sometimes, a drug meant to ease anxiety can aid in controlling your breathlessness.
When to call 911
Call for emergency medical help if:
- Your shortness of breath is accompanied by chest pain or pressure, you’re struggling to catch your breath, or you also have symptoms like confusion, night sweats, heart palpitations, or nausea—you might be having a heart attack
- You are having difficulty breathing and have a fever, a cough, and chest discomfort—you could have a serious infection such as pneumonia
- Breathlessness comes on suddenly
- You become breathless while at rest
- Shortness of breath gets worse with exercise
- Breathlessness lasts longer than 30 minutes
Always treat sudden and severe difficulty breathing as an emergency. Chronic symptoms like wheezing, coughing, and fatigue warrant an appointment with your doctor. Even if you don’t have other symptoms, you should never ignore prolonged shortness of breath.