Breathlessness or shortness of breath is when we have difficulty breathing. It feels like we are running out of air; despite trying our hardest cannot breathe deeply enough.
People usually associate this with asthma. Although breathlessness is one of the principal symptoms of asthma, it is not the only disease where it happens. So, we should not consider someone having asthma only because they suffer from breathlessness. Only a physician should make the proper diagnosis.
It should be noted that things like strenuous exercise, poor air quality, high altitude, and overweight/obese can also cause breathlessness in an otherwise healthy person.
The worrying thing is whether the breathing problem appears suddenly without any apparent reason or worsens gradually. Then the breathlessness may be related to a more serious underlying pathology.
Usually, pathological causes of breathlessness are related to heart and lung problems. The sudden appearance of breathlessness, known as acute breathlessness, may stem from lung diseases (e.g., asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease/COPD or even COVID-19). If a foreign body, e.g. a coin, is lodged into our respiratory tract, it can also cause acute breathlessness.
Infections, e.g., pneumonia, can also be a cause of breathlessness. Blood or fluid in the lung, collapsed lung - all could cause breathlessness.
Cardiac causes may vary from a sudden heart attack, heart failure or problems with heart rhythm, all of which may cause acute onset of breathlessness. Additionally, allergic reactions and carbon monoxide poisoning may also lead to breathlessness.
When breathlessness lasts four weeks or more, it is categorised as chronic breathlessness. Many of the causes are the same as acute ones. It may be due to heart failure, heart valve disease or even arrhythmia.
Asthma and COPD can also result in chronic breathlessness. Fluid accumulation in the lungs and other lung diseases may also lead to this. Some of these diseases can be treated, but in many cases, patients need to manage their condition and live with it.
There are many other causes of breathlessness. Following trauma to the chest or back, nerve paralysis, certain types of myopathies or neuropathy, breathlessness could be a symptom.
Psychological problems, e.g. anxiety, maybe another reason. Systemic diseases like acute renal failure, anaemia, thyroid diseases, liver cirrhosis, severe infection or sepsis are some important causes of breathlessness.
If someone faces breathlessness for almost a month, with swollen ankles or coughs lasting for 03 weeks or more, or if the breathlessness worsens lying down or by daily activities, then medical assistance should be sought.
Emergency help must be requested if this is associated with chest tightness or pain radiating to arms, jaw, neck or back.
Breathlessness should not be taken lightly. It may be due to something simple or the manifestation of something severe. In any case, if someone is suffering from breathlessness, the best course of action is to see a physician. The physician will investigate the exact cause of the symptom and offer proper advice to manage the condition.