Shortness of breath (or dyspnea) is most commonly associated with issues affecting the lungs or the heart, including infections of the lungs or heart, fluid buildup around the heart, heart failure, coronary artery disease, other heart disease, or heart attack. COPD, lung cancer, allergies, and asthma can also cause shortness of breath, and people who lead sedentary lifestyles, as well as those who are very overweight or obese, may experience dyspnea during physical exertion. Smoking is another common cause of breathing problems including shortness of breath.
A complete physical examination is the first step in determining the cause of chest pain. In addition to providing a description of your symptoms and a personal and family medical history, your heart and lungs will be listened to through a stethoscope and you'll also be given a simple test called an EKG that uses electrodes placed on the skin to monitor the heart's electrical activity. Imaging studies like chest x-rays, MRI or CT scans may be ordered to obtain images of the lungs and heart. In some cases, blood tests may be ordered or you may be asked to complete a simple lung function test or to provide a sputum sample if a cough is present.
Treatment will depend on the underlying cause of the breathing issues. For instance, if shortness of breath is caused by asthma or allergies, medications are available to help improve breathing. If a lung infection like pneumonia is present or if the heart is infected, antibiotics may be used to fight off the germs causing the infection. When shortness of breath is related to heart diseases like coronary artery disease, minimally-invasive procedures like angioplasty and stenting may be necessary to address blockages that are interfering with the flow of blood. Very severe blockages may require bypass surgery to reroute circulation. Some heart-related issues including shortness of breath can also be treated with medications and lifestyle changes. Your treatment will be determined following a complete evaluation of your health and your symptoms.