Dyspnea: How to Manage Shortness of Breath

Dyspnea is a medical name for shortness of breath. It is the name given to the sensation of  finding hard to catch your breath or get enough air in your lungs. This condition is oftentimes a warning sign of an underlying health problem that might need medical attention.

Healthy adults breathe in and out up to 12-16 times per minute when they are resting. That’s close to 25,000 breaths a day. While a strenuous workout can cause the breathing rate to go up significantly, you should not feel the sensation of shortness of breath.

People with with dyspnea may describe their feeling as :

  • Chest tightness
  • Air hunger
  • Inability to breathe deeply
  • Feeling of suffocation
  • Choking sensation

Dyspnea can occur suddenly (sudden dyspnea) or it can develop over weeks, months, or years (long-lasting dyspnea). The former can start within a few minutes or hours.

Many conditions can cause shortness of breath. Some of the most prevalent causes of short-term dyspnea include:

  • Asthma
  • Anxiety disorders
  • Pulmonary embolism
  • Heart attacks
  • Heart failure
  • Choking
  • A collapsed lung
  • Excess fluid around the heart
  • Sudden blood loss
  • Anaphylaxis (severe allergic reaction)
  • Obesity
  • Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)
  • Chronic Heart disease
  • Lung scarring
  • Cardiomyopathy
  • Sarcoidosis
  • Inflammation of the tissue around the heart
  • Tuberculosis
  • Lung cancer

Our chest is made up of wind pipes, lungs, space between the outer surface of the lung and the rib cage, lung arteries, and heart. Dyspnea hence, can happen due to disease in any of these components of the chest.

Dyspnea that starts suddenly or over a period of minutes to hours is commonly caused by diseases of the windpipe, lung arteries, and the heart.

On the other hand, dyspnea that develops over days, or weeks or months is commonly caused by the diseases of the lungs or space between the outer surface of the lungs and the rib cage.

Dyspnea that starts suddenly or over a period of minutes to hours is evaluated by listening to chest for wheezing (a musical  made by the air flowing through the narrowed wind pipes in the chest) and if no wheezing, an ECG, a chest X-ray, and if the chest X-ray is normal, then by a CT scan.

Wheezing if present indicates an attack of asthma, COPD or allergic reaction. Absence of wheezing and normal chest X-ray indicates that the problem is in the arteries of the lungs because it is the arteries of the lungs that neither make any sound, nor are they visible on the chest X-ray.

This condition of blocked lung arteries is called pulmonary embolism which means a clot in the arteries of the lungs.

  • Pulse oximetry – A device is clipped to the earlobe or finger to measure the amount of oxygen in the blood.
  • Blood tests – Used to check if a patient has low hemoglobin (anemia) or infection.
  • Electrocardiogram (EKG) – Measures the electrical signals from the heart to check if a patient is having a heart attack. It is also used to determine how fast the heart is beating and if its rhythm is healthy.
  • CT scan or chest X-ray – Used to check if you have pneumonia or other lung disease. A CT scan also puts together X-rays from various angles to see the complete picture.
  • Lung function tests
  • Cardiopulmonary exercise test (CPET)

Treatment will often depend on the reason behind the shortness of breath. For instance, if the patient has asthma, an inhaler can make them feel better. If fluid is present in the lungs, draining it may be recommended. If the shortness is breath is secondary to a blood clot or infection, medication may be prescribed.

Doing meditation and breathing and relaxation exercises may help ease the condition. You may also need to limit your activities and conserve your activities. You might also find relief when you change the way you sleep or sit.

To help the lungs expand, sit upright in a chair, slightly leaning forward, and resting the forearms on the knees or the arms of the chair. Sleeping in a recliner or with several pillows might also help.

There are two breathing exercises that can also help manage the condition. Check with your doctor before trying any of the methods. Your respiratory or physical therapist may also be able to provide guidance on how to manage the condition.

To do this kind of breathing, keep the lips tightly pressed together except for the very center. Breathe in through the nose and take normal breaths. Then take twice as long when breathing out through the center of the mouth.

This is also known as abdominal breathing. To do this, find your diaphragm. Place the fingers below the breastbone and breathe in. The muscle that moves is the diaphragm. You can also lie on your back and place a book on your abdomen.

Observe your breathing pattern as the book rises and falls. Your main goal should be to make the book rise and fall each time you breathe.

This is also known as abdominal breathing. To do this, find your diaphragm. Place the fingers below the breastbone and breathe in. The muscle that moves is the diaphragm. You can also lie on your back and place a book on your abdomen.

Observe your breathing pattern as the book rises and falls. Your main goal should be to make the book rise and fall each time you breathe.

Have someone take you to the emergency room if:

  • Dyspnea is severe and came on suddenly
  • Shortness of breath is accompanied by nausea, fainting, and chest pain
  • Fingertips or lips are turning blue

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