HCA Midwest Health - December 18, 2017

Shortness of breath can be alarming. We take breathing for granted so it’s scary when something suddenly makes it harder. Shortness of breath can be life-threatening, so call 911 or visit the nearest emergency room if your breathing problem:

  • Comes on suddenly
  • Comes on suddenly and is accompanied by chest pain, fainting, nausea or vomiting
  • Is part of a chronic condition like asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), but regular treatments do not help or breathing gets worse

Contact your physician for advice if you have shortness of breath with:

  • High fever, cough, or chills
  • Swelling in feet or ankles
  • Lips or fingertips turning blue
  • Difficulty breathing when lying down
  • Wheezing
  • Whistling or high-pitched noise while breathing (stridor)
  • Breathlessness that does not improve with rest or inhalers

You can also talk to a registered nurse for free, anytime 24/7 by calling 1-800-386-9355. Learn more about which conditions are ‘must go’ for the ER in Are My Symptoms an Emergency?.

Causes of shortness of breath

Many conditions can contribute to shortness of breath, from a blood clot, to heart problems to pneumonia. These are some of the common causes of shortness of breath:

  • Asthma
  • Pneumonia or other lung infection
  • Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (chronic bronchitis/emphysema, COPD)
  • Heart attack
  • Other heart problems, including pericarditis, arrhythmias, cardiomyopathy or heart failure
  • Collapsed lung
  • Lung cancer
  • Obesity
  • Exertion or exercise
  • Croup
  • Carbon monoxide poisoning
  • Low blood pressure
  • Choking
  • Broken ribs
  • Airway obstruction
  • Pulmonary embolism
  • Tuberculosis
  • Panic attack

That’s a long and varied list, showing you how many problems can relate to shortness of breath. One study showed that 13 percent of all EMS ambulance calls are for respiratory distress, which includes shortness of breath.

Questions the ER may ask

When you go to the ER with shortness of breath, the staff may ask certain questions to begin your diagnosis. Your answers can help them find the source of the problem. Some of the questions include:

  • When did the shortness of breath start?
  • Do you have it all the time or during a certain activity?
  • Has it gotten worse?
  • Does anything make it feel better?
  • Has it made you limit your activities?
  • Do you have a cough or wheezing?
  • Do you have chest pain?
  • Do you have trouble speaking normally?
  • Have you ever smoked?
  • Do you feel tightness in your chest?
  • Have you had a fever recently?
  • Do you have night sweats?
  • Have you lost weight recently?
  • Do you have asthma or allergies?
  • Do you have any personal or family history of lung diseases (asthma, tuberculosis, lung cancer, cystic fibrosis, etc.)?

These and other questions can help doctors understand what you are feeling so they can start treating the problem.

Chronic shortness of breath

Shortness of breath with asthma

Asthma affects the airways and lungs. Asthma attacks inflame the airways, causing the muscles to constrict and mucus to build up. All of these contribute to shortness of breath and other asthma symptoms like coughing and wheezing. Asthma attacks can be triggered by allergies, exercise or other factors.

Treating asthma involves short- and long-term medications and avoiding asthma triggers. Each asthma attack is different, so it’s important to know how your body reacts to an attack and to medication. If your regular asthma plan is not working, you should go to an ER for further evaluation.

Shortness of breath with COPD

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) involves both emphysema and chronic bronchitis. People with COPD have damaged airways and air sacs, making it harder to breathe in and out. For people with worsening COPD, just the exertion of getting dressed can cause shortness of breath.

COPD medications and breathing exercises can slow the disease and make patients more comfortable. But the disease can flare up and worsen. If the patient’s regular COPD plan doesn’t help, it’s important to go to the ER for treatment.

If you or a loved one have a chronic condition that involves shortness of breath, get to know what the symptoms are like, what’s ‘normal’ for you. If you have slight changes, ask your doctor or try our Nurses On-Call, you can get health information and advice from registered nurses who are available 24/7 by calling 1-800-386-9355. If you are not sure, play it safe. Call 911 or go to one of our 11 ER locations throughout the Kansas City region. You can text 'ER' to 32222 for average ER wait times.