What is breathlessness?

The medical term for breathlessness is 'dyspnoea', derived from the ancient Greek words for 'difficulty' and 'breathing'. It is classified as either acute, if it comes on suddenly, or chronic if it builds up over a longer period of time. It is also referred to as 'shortness of breath'. 

What does breathlessness feel like?

  • A feeling that you can't take a deep enough breath - 'short of breath'
  • Difficulty breathing
  • A tightness in the chest
  • Feeling winded or 'puffed out'
  • An onset of rapid breathing

What causes breathlessness?

The causes of breathlessness are different depending on whether the conditions is acute or chronic...

1) Causes of acute breathlessness

Many things may cause a sudden onset of breathlessness...

  • Allergic reaction - a severe allergic reaction referred to as 'anaphylaxis'
  • Anaemia - a lack of haemoglobin in the blood makes it hard for the blood to carry enough oxygen around the body
  • Anxiety
  • Asthma
  • COPD - Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease, a chronic lung condition where the airways become inflamed and narrowed, often caused by smoking
  • Heart disease - a heart attack or heart failure
  • Blood clots (pulmonary embolism) in the lungs
  • Medications - some medications for example beta blockers and aspirin can cause breathlessness
  • Pneumonia or severe chest infection
  • Pain
  • Pregnancy - shortness of breath is common in pregnant women especially after physical activity or when lying down

2) Causes of chronic breathlessness

  • Anaemia (see above)
  • Asthma (see above)
  • Being overweight or obese
  • COPD (see above)
  • Heart failure or arrhythmia 
  • Low level of physical fitness

How is breathlessness treated?

This will depend on the underlying cause of the condition. You may need to undergo some tests to discover if the condition is being caused by problems with the heart of the lungs. These tests may include...

  • Blood test/s
  • A chest X-ray
  • An electrocardiogram (ECG)
  • A breathing test

In very general terms, many cases of sudden onset and ongoing breathlessness are caused by lifestyle choices. It is advisable to stop smoking if you smoke, to lose any excess weight and follow a regular exercise regime.