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What is Dyspnoea?

Tricia Christensen
Updated Feb 18, 2024
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Dyspnoea may also be less fancifully termed as shortness of breath. In the medical sense, it tends to refer to shortness of breath deriving from a medical condition and not caused by excessive exertion. Numerous conditions list dyspnoea as a possible symptom.

Some causes of dyspnoea are directly tied to the respiratory tract. For example those suffering from asthma, bronchitis or pneumonia may exhibit severe shortness of breath, suggesting the need for respiratory support. As well, viral illnesses like RSV and croup can also result in difficulty breathing, as a child struggles between violent coughing fits.

Emphysema, lung cancer, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) may all cause the breath to shorten and become strident. Usually dyspnoea is accompanied by a more musculature struggle to breathe, as well. One will notice the chest heaving up and down as the person struggles for breath. Obstruction or paralysis in the vocal cord region may be indicated by this condition.

Cardiac conditions, as well, can result in dyspnoea. Congestive heart failure can result in shortness of breath. In some cases, excessive shortness of breath may indicate impending heart attack, especially when accompanied by chest pain. Children born with congenital heart defects may quickly develop dyspnoea as a result of poor oxygen quality. Shortness of breath in a newborn should always be investigated thoroughly.

Pleurisy, which is swelling of the tissues surrounding the lungs and lining the rib cages, may result in severe dyspnoea, resulting in both difficulty breathing and pain when taking breath in. Usually shortness of breath is disproportionate to activity. For example, a walk up the stairs might feel like a two-mile run up a hill.

Those with severe skeletal malformations of primarily the spine or rib cage may also encounter breathing difficulties. As well, injury or paralysis of the spine or rib cage can result in chronic labored breathing.

Dyspnoea may also frequently be noticed in a person undergoing a panic attack. Those who are experiencing their first panic attack often mistake the struggle for breath as a far more serious medical symptom such as a heart attack. Usually, it can be resolved by breathing into a paper bag.

Since dyspnoea can indicate serious medical conditions, it is important for anyone suffering it to see a medical professional as soon as possible, especially when shortness of breath does not quickly resolve. Especially since prolonged shortness of breath can suggest severe heart or lung disorders, one should seek emergency treatment for those experiencing breathing problems.

WiseGeek is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Tricia Christensen
By Tricia Christensen
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a WiseGeek contributor, Tricia Christensen is based in Northern California and brings a wealth of knowledge and passion to her writing. Her wide-ranging interests include reading, writing, medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion, all of which she incorporates into her informative articles. Tricia is currently working on her first novel.
Discussion Comments
By anon992047 — On Aug 09, 2015

I have been told I have COPD. I have had a ct scan and there is a lump on my lung. I am now awaiting the results of a second ct scan. What could this lump be?

By anon243125 — On Jan 26, 2012

My cousin was rushed into hospital after many visits to the docs and being turned away. After a week an a half of lung, liver and heart failure, the doctors an surgeons still had no idea what was causing this. Unfortunately last night he died at the young age of 32! Has anyone heard of this before? What has happened?

By anon69989 — On Mar 11, 2010

My mother is 48 years old and suffering from exertional dyspnea for about seven or eight months and currently taking regular medication. But still she cannot walk long distance and she easily get tired of even of small works.

she was told that her right heart is enlarged and pressure in her right lung has increased. Even though doctors tried to figure out what exactly has caused her condition, nothing unusual was found in her test reports.

All i want to know is whether this condition could be cured completely and what further treatments should be done for her.

By rose77sister — On Jun 25, 2009

Is Dyspnoea something that must occur in patients with ventricular tachycardia and is it fatal?

By calder — On Nov 07, 2008

I am a 68 year old male that finally got into shape at age 40. I have done several marathons and at age 60 I completed my first Ironman race. I have completed 3, so far.

Last year I noticed that I was having trouble breathing while running. This summer I was diagnosed with failure of my right phrenic nerve. I only had 50% use of the nerve, so my right diaphragm would not let my right lung fully expand. A sniff test confirmed this.

After another sniff test, just last week I was diagnosed with total failure of my right diaphragm. I am looking for any way to rehab the nerve or strengthen the muscles of my chest, so that I can run again.

By spasiba — On May 04, 2008

A particularly serious situation occurs if dyspnoea happens suddenly. The most likely reason would be failure of the heart.

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a WiseGeek contributor, Tricia...
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