Why You’re Feeling Shortness of Breath—and What to do About it

Tightening chest. Suffocation. Not. Enough. Air.

That’s what shortness of breath, or dyspnea, feels like, and it’s quite terrifying. Our bodies are hardwired to get air for survival, and when we can’t get enough, we start panicking.

If you experience shortness of breath, the first thing to do is to breathe. Panicking will just intensify your symptoms, so you need to consciously and slowly breathe in and out to an even beat until you feel like you have enough air. Breathing through pursed lips uses less energy and can help you relax.

See below for instructions on how to do pursed lip breathing.

The second thing you should do is make an appointment to see your doctor as soon as possible. That’s because it’s most likely a sign of an underlying medical problem you need to treat as soon as possible.

Causes of shortness of breath

In healthy people, dyspnea can happen after strenuous and/or unusual exercise, such as running very quickly. Extreme temperatures, dehydration, smoking, and high altitudes can also cause shortness of breath.

If you experience shortness of breath after any of these events, and you’re able to come out of it when you remove the conditions that caused it, you’re probably fine.

But any time the symptoms start for no reason, or they come on suddenly and severely, you should see your doctor immediately. If shortness of breath happens together with chest pain, fainting, or nausea—especially in a senior—call 911.

Here are some of the common medical causes of sudden, or acute, dyspnea:

  • Asthma
  • Heart attack
  • Heart failure
  • Low blood pressure
  • Pneumonia
  • Pulmonary embolism

When shortness of breath lasts a weeks or months, it’s usually asthma or COPD. Other reasons include:

  • Anemia
  • Anxiety
  • Cardiomyopathy
  • Deconditioning
  • Heart arrhythmia
  • Heart dysfunction
  • Heart failure
  • Lung cancer
  • Obesity
  • Pulmonary edema
  • Pulmonary fibrosis
  • Pulmonary hypertension
  • Tuberculosis

Some of these acute or chronic conditions can be quite serious, so don’t play around with shortness of breath. If you or a loved one ever has an unexplained incidence of shortness of breath, see a doctor as soon as possible.

How to Breathe Through Shortness of Breath

If you experience shortness of breath often due to a medical condition, smoking, or obesity, you should practice pursed lip breathing. It’s a good relaxation technique, even if you do not have shortness of breath.

Here’s how to do it, from MedlinePlus:

  1. Relax the muscles in your neck and shoulders.
  2. Sit in a comfortable chair with your feet on the floor.
  3. Inhale slowly through your nose for 2 counts.
  4. Feel your belly get larger as you breathe in.
  5. Pucker your lips, as if you were going to whistle or blow out a candle.
  6. Exhale slowly through your lips for 4 or more counts.

Exhale normally. DO NOT force the air out. DO NOT hold your breath when you are doing pursed lip breathing. Repeat these steps until your breathing slows.

If you’re concerned that your becoming short of breath too often, see your doctor immediately.


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