10 Health Problems That Can Cause Shortness of Breath
Being short of breath isn’t uncommon; most of us have experienced temporary shortness of breath after a period of strenuous physical exertion. But sometimes, shortness of breath (or dyspnea) occurs chronically, or it happens acutely without physical activity. In these instances, it can be a sign of a serious underlying medical issue.
At Medical Access, our team uses pulmonary function testing to evaluate lung function in patients at our offices in Germantown, Maryland, and Alexandria and Woodbridge, Virginia. If you’re experiencing shortness of breath, here are 10 possible causes.
Asthma is a chronic breathing disease that causes your airways to constrict, making it hard to breathe. Asthma also increases mucus production, which can contribute to shortness of breath. Many people find their symptoms are worse following exercise or during allergy season.
2. Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)
COPD is an inflammatory lung disease that causes permanent changes in your lungs and airways. Shortness of breath is a common symptom of COPD, along with chronic cough.
3. Heart failure
Heart failure happens when the heart isn’t able to pump enough blood through your body. Low blood flow deprives your tissues of oxygen, triggering shortness of breath that becomes more pronounced as the disease progresses.
Your heart and lungs need regular exercise to maintain normal, healthy function. When you lead a relatively sedentary lifestyle, your heart and lungs become “deconditioned,” which means it’s harder for them to function, especially during periods of physical activity. Starting (and sticking with) an exercise program can help in most cases.
5. Being overweight or obese
Extra weight can trigger dyspnea in a couple of different ways. Not only do your heart and lungs have to work harder to move your body and transport oxygen to all your cells, but excess pounds can interfere with your chest wall mechanics — how easily your chest expands and contracts in response to breathing.
Anemia happens when your blood doesn't contain enough iron. Iron is necessary for transporting oxygen to your tissues and organs. When you don’t have enough iron, your cells don’t get enough oxygen, triggering dyspnea and related symptoms.
7. History of smoking
Smoking takes a major toll on your lungs, your blood vessels, and your heart. It isn’t surprising, then, that smoking is also associated with shortness of breath. It also increases your risks of heart disease and lung disease, like COPD.
8. Lung infections
Lung infections are associated with inflammation and, often, accumulation of fluid. Both these effects interfere with your lungs’ ability to take in and distribute adequate oxygen, leaving you feeling short of breath.
9. COVID-19 infection
COVID-19 has dramatic effects on the lungs, and it may affect your heart, as well. Even after recovering from an acute infection, many patients have shortness of breath for weeks or months afterward.
10. Interstitial lung disease
Interstitial lung disease is a condition that causes progressive scarring of lung tissue. As scars increase, lungs become stiffer and less able to support normal respiration. Though autoimmune diseases and exposure to substances like asbestos cause some forms of interstitial lung disease, the cause is not always known.
The important role of pulmonary function testing
Pulmonary function testing uses a variety of techniques to evaluate lung function and other parameters of breathing. Breathing tests are painless, noninvasive, and performed right in the office.
Tests often involve breathing into a special device to measure how well your lungs fill with air, how much air they contain, and other functions. Other tests use a blood sample to determine how well oxygen and carbon dioxide are transported from your lungs to your bloodstream.
Pulmonary function testing plays a critical role in determining the best treatment for dyspnea and its causes. It’s also important for evaluating how well a treatment is working once a diagnosis is made.
Don’t ignore shortness of breath
Shortness of breath is a symptom of many diseases and medical conditions, including the 10 listed here and many others. If you’re having breathing issues, early diagnosis and treatment are essential for preventing more serious medical problems.
To learn more about pulmonary function testing or to schedule a visit to learn what’s causing your dyspnea symptoms, book an appointment online or over the phone with the team at Medical Access today.