Why Do I Have Shortness of Breath?


Doctor with stethoscopePeople can experience breathlessness caused by a clot that is blocking a coronary artery. It is often accompanied by other symptoms of a heart attack such as pressure, fullness and a squeezing pain in the chest that lasts more than a few minutes. You may also have nausea and feel like you are going to faint.

Shortness of breath can also occur from a partial blockage in coronary arteries. It can come on after a certain level of physical activity but get better when you stop to rest for a few minutes. This could require treatment — first with nitrates for temporary relief and later with balloon angioplasty or heart surgery.

Breathlessness can be caused when the heart muscle — weakened by a heart attack, uncontrolled hypertension or other causes — is not pumping blood vigorously or efficiently enough to meet the body’s needs. Other symptoms of heart failure include fluid retention, increased weight, swollen feet and ankles and increased difficulty breathing when lying down.


If you have shortness of breath accompanied by wheezing, you probably know that asthma is the cause. Exercise is a common asthma trigger, and even highly trained athletes can suddenly become breathless after mild exertion because of an asthma attack. Asthma can be managed, but many patients end up in the emergency room every year because of asthmatic breathing.

If you’ve been a smoker for several years or have been exposed to pollution or fumes in the workplace or at home, shortness of breath that gets progressively worse is probably a sign of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) or emphysema. An infection in the lungs, ranging from a cold or bronchitis to pneumonia or tuberculosis can also cause shortness of breath. So can a respiratory allergy or an obstruction of any kind in the air passages.


Diseases such as multiple sclerosis, Lou Gehrig’s disease, or brain damage caused by a stroke or a spinal cord injury can also cause breathing problems. With any episode of shortness of breath, whether you know the cause or not, the immediate task is to restore normal breathing quickly.

What to Do If You Experience Shortness of Breath

While most individuals realize the need for more oxygen, they may not understand that carbon dioxide is also a major factor. Carbon dioxide (CO2) is produced as a waste product whenever the muscles are used. When CO2 levels in your blood rise, your brain issues a call for you to breathe deeper and more rapidly until these levels return to normal.

The first task is to relax. When your muscles are tense, they are continuing to work and producing more carbon dioxide — making your breathlessness even worse. Stop what you’re doing and sit down, if possible to take the load off your muscles.  Lung disorders such as asthma and emphysema affect the ability to exhale efficiently. So it’s important to take the time to exhale completely before taking the next breath.

Call 911 immediately if you or someone else has:

1) Severe shortness of breath that comes on suddenly — a person is blue in the face, chest or hands, or can’t speak more than two words between gasps, is confused, dizzy, or weak

2) Shortness of breath accompanied by other symptoms of a heart attack.
While waiting for arrival of an ambulance, keep the patient resting in a comfortable position– usually sitting upright, and keep the patient cool.

See your doctor right away if you have  shortness of breath after slight exertion or while at rest; wheezing; shortness of breath plus a fever, chills and cough; swollen feet and ankles and trouble breathing when you’re lying down.

If you’re frequently feeling mild breathlessness, the best advice is to stop smoking, start exercising and get in shape.

© 2012 Milford Regional Medical Center