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Shortness of Breath on Exertion
Shortness of breath on exertion is a term used to describe difficulty breathing when engaged in a simple activity like walking up stairs or goi...

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What Is Shortness of Breath on Exertion?

Shortness of breath on exertion is a term used to describe difficulty breathing when engaged in a simple activity like walking up stairs or going to the mailbox. 

It’s also known as:

  • breathlessness on exertion
  • exertional dyspnea
  • dyspnea on effort
  • exertional breathlessness
  • short of breath with activity
  • dyspnea on exertion (DOE)

While each person experiences this symptom differently, it’s usually marked by feeling like you can’t catch your breath. Normal breathing is relatively slow. When you begin breathing faster and feel that the breath is shallower, that’s what shortness of breath feels like. You may switch from breathing through your nose to your mouth to try and get more air. When this happens without athletic exertion, it becomes a concern. 

Many people feel short of breath during strenuous activity if they are not accustomed to exercise. But, if you have a sudden onset of difficulty breathing doing routine, day-to-day activities, it may be a medical emergency. Shortness of breath on exertion is a sign that your lungs are not getting enough oxygen in or getting enough carbon dioxide out. It can be a warning sign of something serious.

Causes of Shortness of Breath on Exertion

Shortness of breath occurs as a result of the interaction of many physical and even psychological factors. A panic attack, for instance, is something triggered by the brain but with very real, physical symptoms. It could even be the result of environmental conditions if air quality is poor in your area. 

All of the following can be connected to shortness of breath on exertion.

  • chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)
  • congestive heart failure (CHF)
  • asthma
  • poor physical conditioning
  • late-stage pregnancy
  • anemia
  • pneumonia
  • pulmonary embolism
  • lung disease (intersitial fibrosis)
  • tumor
  • obesity
  • kidney disease
  • liver disease

Diagnosing the Underlying Cause of Shortness of Breath

When you have shortness of breath on exertion, you should make an appointment to see your doctor. They will ask about your medical history and provide an exam. Tests will help determine the cause of your breathlessness. These tests may include:

  • chest X-rays
  • CT scan
  • exercise testing
  • pulmonary function studies
  • lab tests including a blood test

Treating Shortness of Breath

Treatment for this condition will depend on the findings of the medical tests. Management will focus on treating the cause of the shortness of breath. 

For instance, if it’s caused by asthma, an inhaler may be used as treatment. If it’s a sign of poor physical condition, your doctor will likely suggest a fitness program. Sometimes, you will simply have to cope with the symptom until the cause is resolved. In pregnancy, for instance, your breathlessness will improve after the baby is born.

How to Recognize a Potential Medical Emergency

A sudden onset of shortness of breath could be a sign of a medical emergency. Call 911 immediately if you have any sudden onset of feeling short of breath, especially if accompanied by:

  • air hunger (the feeling that no matter how deep you breath, you still are not getting enough air)
  • gasping for breath
  • choking
  • chest pain
  • confusion
  • passing out or fainting
  • sweating profusely
  • pallor (pale skin)
  • cyanosis (bluish colored skin)
  • dizziness
  • coughing up blood
Written by: the Healthline Editorial Team
Edited by:
Medically Reviewed by:
Published: Jan 13, 2015
Published By: Healthline Networks, Inc.
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