What to Do When Experiencing Shortness of Breath

woman with shortness of breath

This page has been reviewed by a medical professional.
Reviewed by Dr. Phil Mitchell, MD, MS

Shortness of breath, or dyspnea, is very common; about 1 in every 4 people who seek ambulatory care have shortness of breath. Even so, there are few things more alarming than experiencing shortness of breath. Whether you have a comorbidity that increases your risk factor, like COPD or asthma, or you’re experiencing shortness of breath as a one-off incident, you need to know what steps to take next. When should you call a doctor? What can you do right now to relieve your shortness of breath and get back on the road to normal breathing? Read on to find out. 

First, Check Your Symptoms 

Shortness of breath is a symptom on its own, but when experienced with certain other symptoms, it can be a sign that you need prompt medical attention. Check to see if you’re experiencing any of these symptoms along with your shortness of breath: 

  • A high-pitched, wheezing noise when you breathe
  • Your extremities or lips turning blue 
  • Swelling in the ankles or feet 
  • Trouble breathing when lying flat
  • Chills accompanied by a cough or a high fever
  • A lack of improvement after 30 minutes of resting

Even if you understand why you’re short of breath, whether it be from strenuous exercise or a known comorbidity, it’s still essential to check for other accompanying symptoms because they could point to a more serious cause. Don’t wait until your shortness of breath becomes an emergency to seek necessary medical attention.

Consider Common Causes

Extreme temperatures, strenuous exercise, obesity, pregnancy, and being at a high altitude can all cause shortness of breath. Besides these common causes, there are also a handful of more serious causes that could be to blame for your shortness of breath, whether it be chronic or acute. 

Chronic Shortness of Breath

If you deal with chronic shortness of breath, it might be from one of the following causes:

  • Asthma
  • COPD
  • Pulmonary fibrosis, edema, or hypertension
  • Abnormal heart function

If you experience shortness of breath frequently and have not been diagnosed with one of the above conditions, seek medical attention in order to determine the root cause.

Acute Shortness of Breath

Perhaps your shortness of breath isn’t chronic, but rather acute. If that’s the case, one of the following causes might be at the heart of the issue: 

  • A COPD exacerbation
  • A heart attack
  • An allergic reaction
  • Low blood pressure 
  • Anemia
  • Pneumonia 
  • An upper airway obstruction or choking
  • Heart failure
  • A pulmonary embolism 
  • Guillain-Barré Syndrome 

Since acute shortness of breath can be a sign of an emergency medical situation, such as a heart attack or a pulmonary embolism, it’s essential to seek treatment as quickly as possible.

Follow These Self-Care Tips to Alleviate Chronic Shortness of Breath

If you struggle with chronic shortness of breath, you’d probably like to learn what you can do to reduce the frequency and severity of your episodes. Here’s a list of things you can implement into daily life to help prevent your chronic shortness of breath from getting worse: 

  • Get regular exercise. Exercising can help improve your body’s ability to handle activity, which can help prevent you from getting easily winded. If you’re obese, exercising can also lead to weight loss, which can reduce your risk of experiencing shortness of breath. Make sure to talk to your doctor before undertaking any regular exercise plan.
  • Avoid temperature extremes and harsh pollutants. Extreme temperatures can worsen shortness of breath that’s caused from a cardiac or lung disease.  Pollutants—including secondhand smoke—can also irritate your respiratory system.
  • Quit smoking. If you smoke cigarettes, the best thing you can do to reduce bouts of shortness of breath (and for your overall health) is to quit as soon as possible. Smoking accounts for 8 out of every 10 COPD-related fatalities and can lead to lung cancer. 
  • Plan travel accordingly. If you’re planning to travel somewhere at a high elevation, make sure to give yourself plenty of time to adapt to the oxygen levels before exerting yourself heavily. If you use equipment for supplemental oxygen, make sure to check it before traveling to be sure it works properly and to ensure you have an adequate supply for your trip. Similarly, if you take medication for a heart or lung condition, make sure to stock up before you hit the road. 

When to See a Doctor

man with shortness of breath

If your shortness of breath is accompanied by chest pain, blue lips or fingertips, an inability to function, cognitive issues, or fainting, seek medical attention immediately or call 911. These could be signs of a heart attack or a pulmonary embolism, both of which are a medical emergency. 

If your shortness of breath is paired with swelling in your lower extremities, wheezing, chills, a cough, or doesn’t abate within 30 minutes of rest, you should also seek medical attention. These could be symptoms of an underlying issue at the root cause of your shortness of breath that needs a diagnosis, such as COPD or abnormal heart function. 

If you’re experiencing shortness of breath, DispatchHealth is here to help. We offer in-home treatment for non-life threatening shortness of breath so you can get the medical attention you need without leaving the comfort of your own home. We take most major medical insurance carriers, including Medicare and Medicaid, and offer an affordable flat rate for uninsured patients. Requesting care is easy: Simply call us, download our app, or request care on our website to receive treatment at your doorstep within a few hours. 

Sources

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

Sources referenced in this article: 

  1. https://www.lung.org/lung-health-and-diseases/lung-disease-lookup/shortness-of-breath/shortness-breath-symptoms-risks.html
  2. https://www.mayoclinic.org/symptoms/shortness-of-breath/basics/definition/sym-20050890
  3. https://foundation.chestnet.org/patient-education-resources/shortness-of-breath-2/ 
  4. http://www.clevelandclinicmeded.com/medicalpubs/diseasemanagement/pulmonary/dyspnea/
  5. https://www.cdc.gov/tobacco/campaign/tips/diseases/copd.html 
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DispatchHealth Staff The DispatchHealth blog provides tips, tricks and advice for improving lives through convenient, comfortable healthcare.