Difficulty Breathing: Causes, Symptoms, Risk Factors, Diagnosis and Treatment

Describes discomfort when breathing and the feeling that you cannot breathe fully. This can develop gradually or appear suddenly.

Mild breathing problems, such as fatigue after an aerobics class, do not fall into this category.

Breathing difficulties can be caused by many different conditions. They can also develop as a result of stress and anxiety .

It is important to note that frequent episodes of sudden and severe shortness of breath or shortness of breath can be signs of a serious health problem that requires medical attention. You should discuss any breathing problems with your doctor.

What Causes Breathing Difficulties?

Breathing difficulties can be caused by common health conditions, as well as environmental problems. These may include:

  • Allergies to dust, mold or pollen.
  • Stress and anxiety.
  • Blocked air passages from a stuffy nose or throat phlegm.
  • Lowered oxygen intake from climbing to a high altitude.

Pulmonary conditions

There are a number of lung conditions that can make it hard for you to breathe. Many of these require immediate medical attention.


Asthma is inflammation and narrowing of the airways that can cause:

  • Difficulty breathing.
  • Wheezing
  • Chest tightness.
  • Tos.

Asthma is a common condition that can vary in severity.


Pneumonia is a lung infection that can cause inflammation and a build-up of fluid and pus in the lung. Most types are contagious. Pneumonia can be a life-threatening condition, so prompt treatment is important.

Symptoms can include:

  • Difficulty breathing.
  • Tos.
  • Chest pain.
  • A cold.
  • Perspiration.
  • Fever.
  • Muscle pain.
  • Exhaustion.
Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease

The chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) refers to a group of diseases that lead to poor lung function. Other signs and symptoms include:

  • Wheezing
  • Constant cough
  • Increased mucus production.
  • Low oxygen levels.
  • Chest tightness.

Emphysema, often caused by years of smoking, is in this category of diseases.

Pulmonary embolism

A pulmonary embolism is a blockage in one or more of the arteries that lead to the lungs. This is often the result of a blood clot from anywhere in the body, such as the leg or pelvis, traveling to a lung. This can be life-threatening and requires immediate medical attention.

Other symptoms include:

  • Swelling of the leg
  • Chest pain.
  • Tos.
  • Wheezing
  • Profuse sweating
  • Abnormal heart rate
  • Dizziness.
  • Loss of consciousness.
  • A bluish tint to the skin.
Pulmonary hypertension

Pulmonary hypertension is high blood pressure that affects the arteries in the lungs. This condition is often due to the narrowing or hardening of these arteries and can lead to heart failure.

Symptoms of this condition often begin with:

  • Chest pain.
  • Difficulty breathing.
  • Problems exercising.
  • Exhausted.

Later, the symptoms can be very similar to those of a pulmonary embolism.

Most people with this condition will notice a worsening of shortness of breath over time. Chest pain, shortness of breath, or loss of consciousness are symptoms that require emergency medical attention.


Croup is a respiratory condition caused by an acute viral infection. It is known to cause a characterized barking cough.

Make an appointment with your doctor if you or your child have symptoms of croup. Children between 6 months and 3 years are more susceptible to this condition.


Epiglottitis is a swelling of the tissue that covers your windpipe due to an infection. This is a life-threatening illness that requires immediate medical attention.

Other symptoms include:

  • Fever.
  • Throat pain.
  • Blue skin.
  • Difficulty breathing and swallowing.
  • Strange breathing sounds.
  • A cold.
  • Ronquera.

A common cause of epiglottis can be prevented with a Haemophilus influenzae type b (Hib) vaccine. This vaccine is usually only given to children under the age of five, as adults are less likely to get a Hib infection.

Heart disease

You may notice that you feel out of breath more often if you have heart disease. This is because your heart is struggling to pump oxygen-rich blood to the rest of your body. There are a variety of possible conditions that can cause this problem:

Coronary artery disease

Coronary artery disease (CAD) is a disease that causes the arteries that supply blood to the heart to narrow and harden. This condition leads to decreased blood flow to the heart, which can permanently damage the heart muscle. Signs and symptoms also include:

  • Chest pain (angina)
  • Heart attack.
Congenital heart disease

A congenital heart disease, sometimes called congenital heart defects, refers to inherited problems with the structure and function of the heart. These problems can lead to:

  • Difficulty breathing.
  • Abnormal heart rhythms

Arrhythmias are types of irregular heartbeats that affect the heart rate or heart rate and cause the heart to beat too fast or too slow. People with pre-existing heart conditions are at a higher risk of developing an arrhythmia.

Congestive heart failure

Congestive heart failure (CHF) occurs when the heart muscle becomes weak and cannot pump blood efficiently throughout the body. This often leads to a buildup of fluid in and around the lungs.

Other heart conditions that can lead to shortness of breath include:

  • Heart attack.
  • Heart valve problems.

Other conditions that cause shortness of breath

Hernia hiatal

A hiatal hernia occurs when the upper part of the stomach protrudes through the diaphragm into the chest. People with large hiatal hernias may also experience:

  • Chest pain.
  • Difficulty to swallow.
  • Acidity.

Medications and lifestyle changes can often treat small hiatal hernias. Larger or smaller hernias that do not respond to treatment may require surgery.

Who is at risk for breathing difficulties?

You’re at higher risk for breathing problems if:

  • Constant stress is experienced.
  • There are allergies.
  • You have a chronic heart or lung condition.

Obesity also increases the risk of breathing difficulties. Extreme physical exertion can also put you at risk for breathing problems, especially when exercising vigorously or at high altitude.

What are the symptoms of breathing difficulties?

The main symptom of breathing problems is feeling like you can’t breathe enough oxygen. Some specific signs include:

  • Faster breathing rate.
  • Wheezing
  • Blue nails or lips.
  • Pale or gray complexion.
  • Excessive sweating
  • Nasal fins.

Contact emergency services if your shortness of breath comes on suddenly. Seek immediate medical attention for anyone whose breathing appears to have significantly slowed or stopped. After calling 911, do emergency CPR if you know how.

Some symptoms, along with shortness of breath, can indicate a serious problem. These problems can indicate an angina attack, lack of oxygen, or a heart attack. Symptoms to look out for include:

  • Fever.
  • Chest pain or pressure
  • Wheezing
  • Throat tightness.
  • A barking cough
  • Difficulty breathing that requires you to sit constantly.
  • Shortness of breath that wakes you up at night.

Breathing difficulties in young children

Babies and young children often have breathing difficulties when they have respiratory viruses. Breathing symptoms often occur because young children do not know how to clean their nose and throat.

There are several conditions that can lead to more serious breathing difficulties. Most children recover from these conditions with proper treatment.


Bronchiolitis is a viral lung infection that often affects babies younger than 6 months. Respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) is the most common cause of this problem. The illness may resemble the common cold at first, but in a few days it may be followed by:

  • Tos.
  • Fast breathing.
  • Wheezing

Oxygen levels can be quite low and may require treatment in the hospital. In most cases, babies recover in 7 to 10 days.

Your child needs medical attention if:

  • You have increased or persistent shortness of breath.
  • They are taking more than 40 breaths per minute.
  • You must sit down to breathe.
  • It has retractions, when the skin of the chest between the ribs and the neck sags with each breath.

If your child has heart disease or was born prematurely, you should seek medical attention as soon as you notice that he is having difficulty breathing.

How are breathing difficulties diagnosed?

Your doctor will need to determine the underlying cause of your breathing difficulties. They will ask you how long you have had the problem, if it is mild or severe, and if physical exertion makes it worse.

After reviewing your medical history, your doctor will examine your airways, lungs, and heart.

Depending on the findings of your physical exam, your doctor may recommend one or more diagnostic tests, including:

  • Blood test.
  • Chest x-ray
  • CT scan.
  • Electrocardiogram (ECG or EKG).
  • Echocardiogram.
  • Pulmonary function tests.

Your doctor may also have you do a stress test to see how your heart and lungs react to physical exertion.

What are the treatment options for breathing difficulties?

Treatments for breathing difficulties will depend on the underlying cause.

Changes in lifestyle

If you have a stuffy nose, exercise too much, or walk at high altitudes and it causes your symptoms, your breathing will likely return to normal if you are healthy. Temporary symptoms will resolve once the cold wears off, you stop exercising, or return to a lower altitude.

Stress reduction

If stress is causing your breathing problems, you can reduce stress by developing coping mechanisms. Some ways to relieve stress include:

  • Meditation.
  • Psychological counseling.
  • Training.
  • Listening to relaxing music or talking to a friend can also help you reboot and refocus.


Some breathing difficulties are symptoms of serious heart and lung disease. In these cases, your doctor will prescribe medications and other treatments. If you have asthma, for example, you may need to use an inhaler immediately after experiencing breathing problems.

If you have allergies, your doctor may prescribe an antihistamine to reduce your body’s allergic reaction. Your doctor may also recommend avoiding allergy triggers like dust or pollen.

In extreme cases, you may need oxygen therapy , a ventilator, or other treatment and monitoring in a hospital.

If your child is experiencing mild breathing difficulties, you may want to try some soothing home remedies along with a doctor’s treatment.

Cool or humid air can help, so take your child outside or to the steam room. You can also try using a cool mist humidifier while your child is sleeping.