what is dyspnea

Dyspnea is the medical term for shortness of breath, sometimes described as “air hunger.” It is an uncomfortable feeling.

Shortness of breath can range from mild and temporary to serious and long-lasting. It is sometimes difficult to diagnose and treat dyspnea because there can be many different causes.

It is a common problem. According to the Cleveland Clinic Center for Continuing Education, 1 in every 4 people who visit the doctor have dyspnea.


Breathing problems from overexertion
Breathing problems can result from overexertion in otherwise healthy people.

Dyspnea can happen as a result of overexertion, spending time at high altitude, or as a symptom of a range of conditions.

Signs that a person is experiencing dyspnea include:

If dyspnea occurs suddenly or if symptoms are severe, it may be a sign of a serious medical condition.


Quitting smoking
Quitting or avoiding smoking is important for preventing respiratory problems.

Individuals with dyspnea can take measures to improve their overall health and give themselves more breathing room.

These include:

  • quitting smoking
  • avoiding second-hand smoke where possible
  • avoiding other environmental triggers such as chemical fumes and wood smoke
  • losing weight, as this can reduce stress on the heart and lungs and make it easier to exercise, both of which can strengthen the cardiovascular and respiratory systems
  • take time adjusting to higher altitudes, ease into activities gradually, and reduce exercise levels at altitudes above 5,000 feet

Specific groups

Dyspnea can affect specific groups of people in different ways:


According to the Cleveland Clinic Center for Continuing Education, mild symptoms of dyspnea are common during pregnancy.

This is because pregnancy alters a woman’s breathing capacity.

Breathing capacity increases during pregnancy, but there is also a reduction in lung volume of up to 20 percent at the end of an expiration.

The number of breaths a woman takes per minute, or the respiratory rate, does not typically change during pregnancy.

Older people and people with serious health conditions

Dyspnea can develop when people are experiencing the advanced stage of certain diseases.

At this point, shortness of breath may be dealt with as part of an end-of-life treatment package, as treating dyspnea with specific drugs may cause the person unnecessary problems.


Diseases of the upper respiratory system that cause acute dysnpea are a relatively common pediatric emergency. They are one of the most common causes of shortness of breath in infants.

Croup, inhaling a foreign object, and inflammation of the epiglottis are all common causes of dyspnea in infants.


The outlook for people with dyspnea depends on the cause.

If the underlying condition can be successfully treated and improved, such as pneumonia or non-severe asthma, then breathing problems may be eliminated or greatly reduced.

However, if shortness of breath is due to serious or chronic diseases that worsen over time, such as chronic heart failure, severe asthma, or COPD, improvement may be limited.

Patients with dyspnea need to work with their healthcare providers to develop and follow a comprehensive treatment plan.

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