Experiencing Shortness of Breath? Here are Five Potential Causes

Kenneth Knowles, MD
Medically reviewed by Kenneth Knowles, MDJanuary 16th, 2021
shortness of breath

Breathing is something you generally don’t think about; it happens involuntarily. However, some people with shortness of breath think about breathing all of the time. Maybe you’re experiencing shortness of breath while exerting yourself or performing normal activities. Maybe it’s happening while you’re not even moving! When breathing becomes difficult like this, without an obvious cause, it can lead you to wonder what’s going on. Referred to as dyspnea, shortness of breath is often related to heart or lung issues, but this isn’t always the case.

While you should always consult a doctor or healthcare professional regarding health-related concerns, here are five common causes of shortness of breath that can help put you on the path to answers:


One of the leading causes of shortness of breath is asthma. As a condition in which your airways narrow and swell and may produce extra mucus, asthma can certainly cause shortness of breath. While asthma is typically diagnosed early in a person’s life, it is possible to develop it later in life—this is known as adult-onset asthma. Your shortness of breath may be the result of asthma if it is accompanied by other symptoms like:

  • Coughing, especially at night, during exercise or when laughing
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Chest tightness
  • Wheezing

Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD)

Dyspnea is also a major symptom of

COPD, which is a chronic inflammatory lung disease that causes obstructed airflow from the lungs. COPD is typically caused by long-term exposure to irritating gases or particulate matter, such as cigarette smoke. So, if you are or were a frequent smoker, your shortness of breath may be a big indicator that you’ve developed COPD. Other symptoms of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease include:

  • Wheezing
  • Chest tightness
  • A cough that may produce mucus (clear, white, yellow, or greenish)
  • Frequent respiratory infections
  • Lack of energy
  • Unexpected weight loss
  • Edema (fluid buildup and swelling) in ankles, feet, or legs

Because COPD is a progressive disease that gets worse over time, it’s important to see a doctor right away if you suspect that you have developed it.

Congestive Heart Failure (CHF)

Just because you’re suffering from shortness of breath doesn’t mean it’s caused by a lung issue; dyspnea is also a common symptom of congestive heart failure. This condition occurs when your heart doesn’t pump blood as well as it should, typically as a result of narrowed arteries in your heart (coronary artery disease) or high blood pressure. Since your heart is working harder to pump blood, you can wind up quickly out of breath when you exert yourself or move around. This isn’t the only symptom of CHF, though—people also usually experience:

  • Fatigue and weakness
  • Swelling (edema) in the legs, ankles and feet
  • Rapid or irregular heartbeat
  • Reduced ability to exercise
  • Persistent cough or wheezing with white or pink blood-tinged phlegm
  • Increased need to urinate at night
  • Swelling of your abdomen (ascites)
  • Very rapid weight gain from fluid retention
  • Lack of appetite and nausea
  • Difficulty concentrating or decreased alertness
  • Shortness of breath when lying flat


Your mental health is equally as important as your physical health and can also be the cause of symptoms like shortness of breath. Even though a physical symptom, like shortness of breath, is often linked to a physical health condition, there’s also a strong possibility that it’s being triggered by anxiety. Shortness of breath is a common side effect of anxiety, along with chest pain and a rapid, fluttering or pounding heart. If you’re experiencing these symptoms and everything physically checks out, you may be suffering from anxiety and/or panic attacks.


In today’s climate, various symptoms are related to COVID-19. Because it’s a respiratory illness, coronavirus can certainly cause shortness of breath. However, experiencing this symptom exclusively doesn’t mean that you’ve contracted the virus. Look out for other common

COVID-19 symptoms, such as:

Various Treatment Options From DispatchHealth


It’s always important to schedule an appointment with a doctor when you have health concerns; it’s never a good idea to self-diagnose. For acute care situations where it might be difficult to visit an urgent care clinic or doctor’s office, you do have another option: in-home care from DispatchHealth. We send teams of experienced and knowledgeable medical professionals to our patients’ homes and are capable of providing patient support for various health conditions, including the ones mentioned above.

You can get in touch with DispatchHealth by contacting us through our website or mobile app, or by giving us a call.


DispatchHealth relies only on authoritative sources, including medical associations, research institutions, and peer-reviewed medical studies.

Sources referenced in this article:

  1. https://www.health.harvard.edu/diseases-and-conditions/shortness-of-breath-a-common-symptom-with-many-possible-causes
  2. https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/asthma/symptoms-causes/syc-20369653
  3. https://acaai.org/asthma/types-asthma/adult-onset-asthma
  4. https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/copd/symptoms-causes/syc-20353679
  5. https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/heart-failure/symptoms-causes/syc-20373142
  6. https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/symptoms-testing/symptoms.html
The DispatchHealth blog provides tips, tricks and advice for improving lives through convenient, comfortable healthcare.

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