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Why Am I Feeling Short of Breath?

by | Apr 1, 2021 | Resources

What is shortness of breath?

Shortness of breath, or breathlessness, is a feeling of not being able to catch your breath or not being able to get enough air in to your lungs, often causing you to breathe faster than normal. It can be both an uncomfortable and frightening experience.

Shortness of breath can be obvious in some cases, like not being able to get dressed or walk up the stairs without becoming breathless, where you previously could. However, other times it can be more difficult to tell, for example becoming more breathless than usual when hill walking or playing sports.

It can be normal for anyone to experience shortness of breath when doing more strenuous activities, but you should see your doctor if this happens regularly or does not go away.


Is shortness of breath serious?

The difficulty with shortness of breath is that the cause is not always clear until a doctor has investigated and been able to make a judgement on it. Whilst some causes can be less directly harmful, others can be potentially life threatening without medical intervention.


What causes shortness of breath?

The common causes of shortness of breath that becomes apparent over a few minutes to days can include:

  1. Obesity
  2. Anxiety
  3. Acute (sudden) attack of asthma
  4. Acute (sudden) attack of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease
  5. Chest infection
  6. Heart attack
  7. Fluid in the lungs
  8. Lung collapse
  9. Airway obstruction, such as an allergic reaction or an object
  10. Blood clot in the lungs
  11. Trauma or injury to the lungs

The common causes of shortness of breath that becomes apparent over weeks or months can include: 

  1. Asthma
  2. Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease
  3. Anaemia
  4. Heart disease
  5. Heart failure
  6. Cancer
  7. Poor physical fitness

When should I see a doctor for shortness of breath? 


See a doctor if you have:

  • Shortness of breath that is ongoing for a long period of time
  • Shortness of breath that is worse than you’ve previously experienced (if you have a known lung disease)
  • Shortness of breath associated with:
    • Chest pain
    • Noisy breathing
    • Coughing up blood in the phlegm
    • Pain or swelling in the calves
    • Weight loss and/or change in appetite
    • Coughing up green phlegm
    • If you have travelled recently


What can I do about my shortness of breath?

  • EXERCISE : Regular exercise keeps the heart and lungs healthy by increasing your body’s ability to take oxygen in and pump it around the body via the blood
  • QUIT SMOKING : Ask your GP or pharmacist for advice
  • MEDICATION : If you use medication to help your shortness of breath (such as inhalers or tablets), make sure you have the correct technique and take them as prescribed
  • BREATHING EXERCISES : A healthcare professional may show you breathing exercises that help in anxiety provoked breathlessness
  • CHEST PHSYIOTHERAPY : A chest physiotherapist may show you techniques to shift phlegm out of your lungs to clear it and how to take in air more effectively
  • PULSE OXIMETER : This is a device your GP may advise you to use to keep an eye on the oxygen level in your blood



NICE CKS: Breathlessness

Patient.co.uk: Breathlessness and Difficulty Breathing

Symptom Sorter



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