Learn About Shortness of Breath | American Lung Association

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Learn About Shortness of Breath

Breathlessness, or shortness of breath, describes discomfort or difficulty with breathing. The medical term for shortness of breath is dyspnea.

Key Facts

  • Shortness of breath is a common symptom that may be related to serious diseases or may be a result of being out of shape.
  • Medical evaluation  should assess if shortness of breath is treatable with lifestyle changes such as quitting smoking or losing weight.
  • Asthma, COPD, heart disease (heart attacks, heart failure) anemia, and blood clots in the lungs (pulmonary embolism) are some examples of serious conditions associated with shortness of breath.

What Is Shortness of Breath?
Shortness of breath is the uncomfortable sensation of not getting enough air to breathe. This may occur when walking, climbing up stairs, running or even when sitting still. It can come on suddenly or slowly over weeks to months.

People describe the feeling they get when breathless in different ways. They may use the words "short of breath," "tightness in my chest," or "cannot get enough air." Breathlessness can be uncomfortable and sometimes scary, but being breathless does not damage your lungs. It can, however, be a sign of another medical condition.

How Serious Is Shortness of Breath?

In a healthy person, very strenuous exercise, extreme temperatures, bad air quality, obesity and high altitude can all cause shortness of breath. But in non-extreme situations, shortness of breath may be a sign of a medical problem.

If you have unexplained shortness of breath, especially if it comes on suddenly and is severe, see a medical professional as soon as possible. If chest pain or pressure, fainting or nausea accompanies shortness of breath, it may be a sign of a more serious medical condition.

    This content was developed in partnership with the CHEST Foundation, the philanthropic arm of the American College of Chest Physicians.


    Approved by Scientific and Medical Editorial Review Panel. Last reviewed June 14, 2016.

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