When you have it, the feeling of being short of breath can be scary. Especially if you're not sure what's causing it.
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"Shortness of breath is a subjective feeling of having very uncomfortable breathing," Sana Quddus, MD, a pulmonologist at Loyola University Medical Center in Chicago, tells LIVESTRONG.com.
Of course, if you head out to run intervals or do a sweaty HIIT workout in your basement, you might expect to be short of breath. But we're talking about when you're simply walking up the stairs in your home, doing the dishes or even sitting down eating. Those are times when you wouldn't expect to be out of breath — and some of them are real emergencies.
Here's what might be going on:
1. It's Anxiety
"People who have anxiety can have a sensation of uncomfortable breathing. This is a behavioral response," Dr. Quddus says. "In a stressful situation, the normal response of the body is 'fight or flight,' which means your heart and respiratory rate goes up, which can give you the sensation that you're short of breath."
When anxiety is the cause, shortness of breath typically lasts between 10 and 30 minutes at a time, according to Hackensack Meridian Health. Episodes usually come on quickly and stem from a feeling of fear or discomfort.
2. You Have COVID
One of the many symptoms to be on the lookout for after exposure to the virus that causes a COVID-19 infection is shortness of breath or difficulty breathing, as well as fever or chills, cough, fatigue, muscle or body aches, headaches and new loss of taste or smell, per the CDC.
If you've been out of breath lately or have a known COVID exposure, ask your doctor if you should be tested.
3. It’s Allergies or Asthma
So many things can trigger an allergic response that constricts your airways, including exposure to dust, pollen, pet dander or strong odors and fumes, Dr. Quddus says. This constriction is a bronchospasm, which is when your airways narrow, giving a sensation of being out of breath.
Exposure to allergens or irritants in the air can trigger asthma symptoms, as can strong emotions and hormonal changes during pregnancy, according to the American College of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology. With asthma, shortness of breath is often accompanied by wheezing (a squeaky or whistling sound when you breathe).
See an allergist to evaluate wheezing and breathing problems.
4. You're Anemic
Nearly 3 million are diagnosed with anemia annually, per the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Anemia is a condition where you have low levels of red blood cells, and it's often caused by not getting enough iron or having a heavy period.
When you lack these red blood cells, which carry oxygen to your tissues, you might feel tired, dizzy and have shortness of breath.
Talk to your doctor — a simple blood test can evaluate the iron levels in your blood.
5. It’s the Cold Air
Cold air exposure can cause a response similar to asthma, Dr. Quddus says, in that it can trigger bronchospasms.
Frigid temps can cause wheezing and coughing, too, according to Harvard Health Publishing. This can happen in healthy people but it's often worse in people with respiratory issues like asthma or COPD.
Cover your nose and mouth with a scarf or mask when you're outside to warm the air you're breathing and reduce these symptoms.
6. Your Heart Needs Help
If your heart isn't able to effectively pump blood (and thus oxygen) around your body, you could feel short of breath just doing everyday activities, like climbing stairs. Shortness of breath is a symptom of mitral valve disease and cardiomyopathy, among other heart problems. Here are six other signs your heart needs a checkup.
Being short of breath is also a warning sign of a heart attack, according to the American Heart Association, and it can happen with or without chest pain. Other symptoms include nausea, lightheadedness, back or jaw pain and breaking out in a cold sweat.
Call 911 if you think you could be having a heart attack.
7. It’s Lung Cancer
This should not be the first thing you think about if you're short of breath, but it's something to have on your radar, especially as December 2020 research in JAMA Oncology reveals that more than 12 percent of lung cancer patients have never smoked.
"Shortness of breath is a common symptom. It's seen in about 30 to 40 percent of patients who have lung cancer," Dr. Quddus says.
Cancerous tumors themselves can cause an obstruction in the lungs; the cancer may also affect the function of respiratory muscles. Unfortunately, this symptom often shows up late and is an indication that the cancer has advanced.
If you (or a loved one) are between ages 55 and 80 and have a history of heavy smoking, ask your doctor if you're a candidate for lung cancer screening.
What to Do if You Have Shortness of Breath
If you are exerting yourself when it happens, Dr. Quddus recommends slowing down and sitting down. Try to calm yourself with slow, deep breaths where you inhale through your nose and breathe out through your mouth. (You can try this breathing technique when you're hit with anxiety. Slow breathing triggers your body's parasympathetic nervous system, which counters the fight or flight response to help you calm down.)
If you're out of breath for a few minutes to hours, you should still see your doctor. Even if you can chalk it up to cold temperatures or exposure to dust or fumes, this is not a normal reaction. "There are breathing tests we can do to see if you have undiagnosed asthma," Dr. Quddus says.
Right now, in winter, it's likely that your physical fitness has declined if you're not getting out as much.
"Deconditioning is really common right now given the time of year and being in lockdown," Dr. Quddus says.
However, you can't just assume that's the case. If there's a change in your perceived fitness level from your baseline — as in, yesterday you could walk up a few flights of stairs just fine and now you huff and puff after the first set — see your doctor.
And remember, call 911 immediately if you think you're having a heart attack.
Is This an Emergency?
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: “Anemia or Iron Deficiency”
- American College of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology: “Wheezing, Shortness of Breath”
- American Heart Association: “Warning Signs of a Heart Attack”
- JAMA Oncology: “Proportion of Never Smokers Among Men and Women With Lung Cancer in 7 US States"
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: “Who Should Be Screened for Lung Cancer?”
- Hackensack Meridian Health: "Is My Shortness of Breath an Anxiety Attack or Coronavirus?"