What Is Dyspnea and What Causes It?
What Is Dyspnea and What Causes It?
Information for Patients with COPD and their Caregivers
This information was sourced from leading COPD health and advocacy organizations. This is general information and should not be taken as medical advice. Please consult with your treating physician if you have specific questions about your COPD or general health.
Dyspnea is the medical term for feeling short of breath. For people who have breathlessness, it can either be sudden or chronic. Doctors consider dyspnea to be chronic if it lingers for at least four weeks.1
Conditions that can cause sudden dyspnea:2
- Heart failure
- Low blood pressure
- Pulmonary embolism (a blood clot in the lungs)
- Carbon monoxide poisoning
- Stress or anxiety
Conditions that can cause chronic dyspnea:2
- Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) and/or Emphysema
- Heart disease
When to See a Doctor?2
Patients typically visit a doctor or the emergency room if they are suffering from dyspnea that comes on suddenly and affects their ability to function or if it is accompanied by:
- Swelling in your feet/ankles
- Trouble breathing when you lie flat
- High fever, chills, or cough
- Worsening preexisting shortness of breath
Information you learn online should not be considered a substitute for medical care. If you have any questions or concerns about your health or the health of a loved one, talk to a medical professional.
Dyspnea and COPD
Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) is one of the most common causes of dyspnea. COPD is a collection of progressive inflammatory diseases, all of which affect the lungs. It has no cure, but there are treatments that can slow down the disease’s effects and improve quality of life.
Emphysema, a severe form of COPD, causes dyspnea because the lungs become hyperinflated. Hyperinflation happens when air becomes trapped in the lungs, causing them to take up more space in your chest cavity and put pressure on your diaphragm.
Emphysema and Hyperinflation
With emphysema, air sacs in the lungs are damaged and lose elasticity. Air gets trapped in the diseased sections of the lung causing the lung to hyperinflate. When air stays trapped in the lung, you have to work harder to exhale and there is less space for new air to come in. This is why many patients with emphysema have dyspnea (shortness of breath).
Treatment for Dyspnea and Hyperinflation Due to Emphysema
Sometimes, medications alone are not enough to treat shortness of breath due to emphysema. Thankfully, there are newer treatment options for severe COPD and emphysema that can reduce hyperinflation and help people breathe easier.
Learn if you could be eligible for treatment with Zephyr Valves by taking a short quiz about your level of dyspnea or shortness of breath.
Synonyms/Slang for Dyspnea
- Shortness of breath
- Shallow breath
- Huffing and puffing
- Gasping for air
- Air hunger
- Tight chest
Ways to Relieve Dyspnea1,2
To help keep chronic dyspnea from getting worse, you should:
- Stop smoking, especially if you suffer from COPD
- Take prescribed medications as directed
- Talk to your doctor about treatment options if medications are not helping as much as they used to
- Regularly check your equipment to make sure it is functioning properly (oxygen tanks, inhalers)
- Exercise regularly to improve your physical health
- Avoid exposure to pollutants (secondhand smoke, chemical fumes)
- Avoid extremes in temperature, as they may trigger dyspnea
- Change the air filter in your home regularly
- Mayo Clinic Staff. “Shortness of Breath.” Mayo Clinic, Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research, 13 June 2020, www.mayoclinic.org/symptoms/shortness-of-breath/basics/when-to-see-doctor/sym-20050890.
- Roland, James. “Dyspnea (Shortness of Breath): Symptoms, Causes, and Treatments.” Healthline, Healthline Media, 2019, www.healthline.com/health/dyspnea.