Breathlessness (dyspnoea) is an unpleasant sensation of uncomfortable, rapid or difficult breathing. People say they feel puffed, short of breath or winded. Your chest may feel tight and breathing may hurt. Everyone can experience breathlessness if they run for a bus or exert themselves to an unusual extent. But it is important to seek medical attention if you suffer from breathlessness, as it may be due to a serious underlying problem. The most common causes are mentioned below.
Breathlessness is when you experience shortness of breath and difficulty breathing. The medical term is dyspnoea. It may come on suddenly (acute) or gradually over a period of time (chronic). The reason for breathlessness is that the body needs more oxygen than it is getting. So you breathe faster to try to increase the flow of oxygen-rich air into the lungs. From the lungs, oxygen gets into the bloodstream and is pumped round the body by the heart.
Sudden severe breathlessness is one of the most common reasons that people call an ambulance or go to accident and emergency departments.
Breathlessness affects all of us when we exercise, especially if we are overweight or not very fit. But unpleasant breathlessness that comes on suddenly or unexpectedly can be due to a serious underlying medical condition. Pneumonia can affect the very young and very old, asthma tends to affect young children, smokers are at greater risk of lung and heart disease and the elderly may develop heart failure. However, all these conditions can affect any age group and severe breathlessness always needs medical attention.
Breathlessness can be measured using a score system devised by the Medical Research Council.
The doctor will want to know more about what you were doing when you became breathless.
These details will help the doctor to make a diagnosis. Your doctor will examine you. He or she will check your heart, including your blood pressure and your lungs. You may be asked to have lung function tests including a peak flow reading. You may be sent for a chest X-ray. You may have blood tests for anaemia, an underactive thyroid gland, and heart failure. Further tests of your heart and lungs may be necessary.
Short-term/recent (acute) breathlessness can be caused by:
Long-term (chronic) breathlessness:
You will have been breathless for some time and it may be getting steadily worse. Common causes include:
Treatment will depend on the likely cause of your breathlessness. You will be strongly encouraged to stop smoking if you are a smoker. You will probably be referred to a heart specialist (a cardiologist) or to a lung (respiratory) specialist, for further tests, depending on the most likely underlying cause. Most cases will be managed by your GP but you may be referred for further investigation and treatment at a hospital.
You should call an ambulance if you suffer from unexpected and severe breathlessness that lasts more than a few minutes. Otherwise, you should call your GP urgently.
You will need to find the underlying cause and try to address it if possible. Don't smoke, or get help to stop smoking because all common serious causes of breathlessness are more likely to affect smokers. If you maintain a normal weight and do regular exercise, you are less likely to get breathless.
This depends on the underlying cause but is generally very good. People with smoking-related diseases who continue to smoke, tend to get more and more breathless. Some people who are breathless will need oxygen.