What causes shortness of breath?

The medical term for shortness of breath is dyspnea. Despite being common, it can be uncomfortable and distressing to experience. Fortunately, when it is not a sign of a more serious condition, it can often be managed at home

Restrictive lung diseases can be managed with medication and exercise regime

Shortness of breath, or breathlessness, is when a person has trouble taking in enough air to breathe. It can range from mild to severe.

When people know what is causing their shortness of breath and it is not a medical emergency, they may want to try treating it at home. The following exercises can help treat breathlessness at home:

 Deep breathing: Breathing in deeply through the abdomen can help someone manage their breathlessness. To do this at home, they should:

  • lie down, putting their hands on their abdomen
  • breathe in deeply through their nose, expanding their abdomen and letting the lungs fill with air
  • hold their breath for a couple of seconds
  • breathe out slowly through the mouth, emptying their lungs
  • repeat this pattern for 5 to 10 minutes

This exercise can be done several times a day, or as often as the individual experiences shortness of breath. It is best to keep breathing slowly and easily, and deeply rather than quickly.

Pursed-lip breathing: Another breathing exercise that can help to relieve shortness of breath is pursed-lip breathing. Pursed-lip breathing helps to reduce breathlessness by slowing the pace of a person’s breathing. This is particularly useful if shortness of breath is being caused by anxiety.

To try pursed-lip breathing at home, a person should:

  • sit upright in a chair with their shoulders relaxed
  • press their lips together, keeping a gap between them in the middle
  • inhale through their noise for a couple of seconds
  • gently exhale through their pursed lips for a count of four
  • carry on inhaling and exhaling in this way for 10 minutes

People can try this exercise any time they feel short of breath, and repeat it throughout the day until they feel better.

Finding a comfortable and supported position: Finding a comfortable and supported position to stand or lie in can help someone relax and catch their breath. If shortness of breath is being caused by anxiety or by over-exertion, this treatment is particularly helpful. The following positions can relieve pressure on a person’s airways and improve their breathing:

  • sitting forwards in a chair, preferably with the head supported by a table
  • leaning against a wall so the back is supported
  • standing with the hands supported on a table, to take the weight off the feet
  • lying down with the head and knees supported by pillows

Using a fan: Research found that using a handheld fan to blow air across the nose and face could reduce the sensation of breathlessness. Feeling the force of air while inhaling made it feel like more air is getting in. The treatment was found to be effective in reducing the sensation of breathlessness

Researchers did not find that the use of a fan actually improved symptoms when they were caused by an underlying condition, however.

Inhaling steam: Inhaling steam can help to keep a person’s nasal passages clear, which can help them breathe more easily. Heat and moisture from steam may also break down mucus in the lungs, which might also reduce breathlessness. To try steam inhalation at home, a person should:

  • fill a bowl with very hot water
  • add a few drops of peppermint or eucalyptus essential oil
  • place their face over the bowl, with a towel over their head
  • take deep breaths, inhaling the steam

It is important to make sure that the water is left to cool slightly if it has just boiled. Otherwise, the steam could scald the skin.

Drinking black coffee: Some research has found that caffeine’s effects slightly improve the way the airway functions in people with asthma. This can be enough to make it easier for them to take in air.

However, it is important to remember that drinking too much coffee can increase a person’s heart rate. It is best to watch caffeine intake when trying this treatment, to make sure not too much is drunk.

Eating fresh ginger: Eating fresh ginger, or adding some to hot water as a drink, may help reduce shortness of breath caused by a respiratory infection.

One study has shown that ginger may be effective in fighting the RSV virus, a common cause of respiratory infections.

Some people may experience shortness of breath suddenly and for just a short period of time. Others may experience it more regularly.

Shortness of breath that occurs regularly may have a common cause, or could be the result of a more serious underlying condition. Shortness of breath that occurs suddenly might mean someone needs emergency treatment.

The different causes behind shortness of breath are explored below.

Common causes: Shortness of breath that happens every now and then can be caused by:

  • being overweight or out of shape
  • smoking
  • allergens or pollutants in the air
  • extreme temperatures
  • strenuous exercise
  • anxiety

Underlying conditions: Regular shortness of breath may be caused by a more serious condition that affects the heart or lungs.

The heart and lungs help carry oxygen around the body and get rid of carbon dioxide. As such, conditions that affect how they function can also affect a person’s breathing.

Underlying conditions that affect the heart and lungs and can cause shortness of breath include:

  • asthma
  • anemia
  • chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)
  • abnormal heart function
  • lung cancer
  • lung diseases, such as pleurisy or tuberculosis

Acute causes: There are also some causes of acute or sudden shortness of breath that indicate a medical emergency. These include:

  • severe allergic reaction
  • choking
  • heart failure
  • heart attack
  • enlarged heart
  • blood clot in the lungs
  • pneumonia
  • carbon monoxide poisoning
  • foreign object inhaled into the lungs

Lifestyle changes: Depending on the cause of the breathlessness, there may be changes that people can make to their lifestyle to improve their symptoms.

Exercise to improve fitness levels may help to improve breathing.

These changes include:

  • losing weight, if obesity is linked to breathing problems
  • exercising to improve fitness levels
  • avoiding exercise in hot conditions or at high altitudes
  • quitting smoking and avoiding secondhand smoke
  • avoiding allergens and pollutants
  • sticking to treatment plans for underlying conditions

When to see a doctor: Some people experience mild shortness of breath regularly and will have the cause diagnosed by a doctor. If a doctor has already diagnosed the cause, trying one of the home treatments above can be a safe course of action.

When someone experiences shortness of breath for the first time without knowing why, they should speak to a doctor. Only a doctor can give a proper diagnosis.

In some cases, shortness of breath is of a cause of immediate concern. A person should seek medical attention straightaway if they:

  • are experiencing sudden, severe shortness of breath
  • have tightness or pain in the chest

Source: Medical News Today