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Written by Healthwords's team of doctors and pharmacists based in UK | Updated: 27.02.2023 | 3 min read

Breathlessness, known medically as dyspnea, is when people describe a feeling of being out of breath, short of breath, or they find it uncomfortable to breathe. It is an unpleasant feeling which can happen to anyone. If it occurs outside of a situation in which you would normally expect it, for example, when exercising, or if it is accompanied by other symptoms such as chest pain, it is important to speak to your doctor right away to rule out any concerning underlying cause.

Next steps

Breathlessness can be a sign of many lung conditions, such as asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), chest infection, a blood clot (pulmonary embolus), or lung cancer. It can also occur if you are overweight or as a symptom of anxiety or panic attacks. Medication, anemia, and pain can all cause breathlessness. 

How can I manage my symptoms?

It is very important to manage your lifestyle. Losing weight, stopping smoking, and stopping drinking alcohol are all advised. If you are anemic, then eating foods rich in iron will be a helpful first step. 

There are some easy ways to manage your breathlessness symptoms at home. Slow deep breathing in through your nose and out through your mouth is a good technique to ensure good oxygen delivery to the lungs, and it's a workout for the muscles that control your breathing. There are other breathing techniques that you can try to find one that works for you. 

You should have a good open posture to allow as much air into your lungs as possible. Staying active vs. resting is a fine balance with breathlessness. Keep healthy but when you feel your symptoms coming on, be sure to take a rest and keep the things you need close by.

When should I see my doctor?

If you experience breathlessness, you should always discuss this with your doctor, especially if the breathlessness is severe, lasting a long time (more significant than a month), if it is accompanied by other symptoms such as coughing, palpitations, ankle swelling, or difficulty breathing upon laying down flat.

It is important to seek urgent medical attention if you are struggling to breathe and experiencing chest pain. This is particularly important if you have chest pain that goes down your arm or to your jaw, nausea or vomiting, you are sweaty and pale, or you become suddenly breathless. This could be due to a heart attack or a clot in the lungs and requires immediate attention by calling 911 for an ambulance. 

What will my doctor do?

Your doctor will take a detailed history from you, take your vitals such as pulse rate, oxygen levels in your tissues, and your blood pressure, and will examine your heart and lungs. Depending on their assessment, they may refer you urgently to a hospital, or they may order blood tests or lung function tests.

At the hospital, they may order a chest X-ray to look at the lungs, an electrocardiogram (ECG) to look at the electrical activity of the heart, or an echocardiogram, a scan of the structure of the heart. They may decide to refer you to a lung or heart specialist for further assessment.

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