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7 causes of breathlessness you probably didn't know

Breathlessness on exertion is not the only thing, there's more to it. Read it now!

Written by Mita Majumdar |Updated : August 26, 2015 4:55 PM IST

Feeling breathless might be something you experience on a day-to-day basis. Whether it was when you ran to catch that bus or train, or when you decided to walk up the stairs instead of using the elevator. Whatever may be the reason for your shortness of breath the feeling can be quite debilitating, making you want to take a few minutes to settle down . But imagine if the feeling of breathless was a regular and recurrent feature in your life when you lie down, when you speak or even when you eat? A sound scary doesn t it? Well, there is more to breathlessness than simply over exertion. Here are the top 7 reasons for breathlessness you might not have known about:

Mild breathing difficulty need not always cause concern. But breathlessness that comes on suddenly and unexpectedly or that gets worse with time, is actually a warning sign of a medical condition and is termed as dyspnoea.

Reason #1: Breathlessness due to a problem with your lungs or airways

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Choking or when something is stuck in the airways can give you shortness of breath. But that is not a very serious problem. You can try the Heimlich maneuver on yourself or on the choking person (avoid performing this maneuver on very young children below the age of one year) or seek professional help immediately in case the breathlessness is prolonged.

But conditions given below can make you breathless frequently or for a long duration and definitely need medical attention.

1. Asthma

An inflammation in the airways, it causes the lungs to swell and narrow, which in turn leads to the symptoms of breathlessness, coughing and wheezing. Shortness of breath gets worse with any physical activity or exercise. Here are 10 facts about asthma you probably didn't know about.

Clue to asthma:

Breathlessness that comes and goes, especially if accompanied by wheezing, is the symptom of asthma. Prompt medical help is required if there is severe breathing difficulty or there is severe anxiety because of shortness of breath, bluish color to lips and face, pulse rate increases and alertness decreases.

2. Pulmonary embolism

It is a condition where the arteries of the lung become blocked because of blood clot, fat cell, tumor cell or air. Pulmonary embolism (PE) most commonly happens due to blood clot in the vein of the thigh. This condition is called deep vein thrombosis or DVT. This clot breaks off and travels to the lungs causing breathlessness and chest pain. Sometimes, low fever or increased heart rate are also the symptoms.

Clue to pulmonary embolism: Sudden onset of breathlessness is the sign of pulmonary embolism (and of course, you are aware of the clot in your veins). However, with many small clots it may come on over a long period. Unfortunately, PE doesn t always show these symptoms, and if the PE is massive, it could be fatal, so, prompt medical care is very important. A massive PE may show symptoms of severe breathlessness, chest pain, drastically lowered blood pressure causing collapse or even a cardiac arrest.

3. Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD)

COPD is a disease that includes two conditions that often occur together chronic bronchitis and emphysema.

In chronic bronchitis, the airways to the lungs may become partially blocked because of swelling or mucus causing breathlessness. Smoking, air pollution, dust, chemicals, all of these can cause chronic bronchitis. Emphysema occurs when the air sacs in the lungs lose their elasticity, and are gradually destroyed causing progressive breathlessness.

Clue to COPD symptoms: History of persistent, gradually increasing breathlessness that worsens with even slightest activity, difficulty catching breath, wheezing, cough with or without mucus, fatigue.

There s no cure for COPD, so the best way you can deal with it is to treat the symptoms and STOP smoking (if you haven t already) because that s sure to damage your lungs further.

4. Pneumonia Pneumonia is an inflammation of one or both lungs generally caused by the bacteria Streptococcus pneumoniae. The bacteria causes a buildup of fluids in the air sacs of the lung which then leads to breathlessness as there is less lung available to transfer oxygen into the blood. Read more about understanding pneumonia and its symptoms.

Clue to pneumonia: In addition to breathlessness, symptoms also include chest pains on breathing in, fever, cough and sputum production. Sometimes the lung sac (pleura) thickens or gets filled with fluid or blood because of infection (pleurisy), cancer, or toxins (asbestosis), or becomes filled with air (pneumothorax) because of trauma, and hinders the lungs from expanding, resulting in breathlessness. Not all causes of breathlessness are due to problems with the lungs or airways.

Reason #2: Breathlessness due to heart problems

Angina, heart attack, heart failure, congenital heart defects, arrhythmia, all of these show symptoms of breathlessness. Incidentally, heart failure that is caused by the damage to the heart muscle is preceded by the other heart conditions such as heart attack, angina, etc.

The shortness of breath in heart failure is caused by the decreased ability of the heart to fill and empty, increasing the pressure in the blood vessels around the lungs, this causes the characteristic symptom of difficulty in breathing when the person is lying down , say cardiologists from Houston Medical Center.

Other symptoms include wakefulness at night with shortness of breath, cough at night or when lying down, breathlessness with activity, swelling of ankles or legs, unusual fatigue with activity and fluid weight gain.

Reason #3: Breathlessness due to a panic attack or anxiety

Breathlessness associated with anxiety is usually the result of hyperventilation. Hyperventilation means over-breathing. What happens is during an anxiety attack your body goes into fight or flight mode. This makes you breathe too fast. Breathing too fast means taking in too much oxygen and letting out too much carbon dioxide. So, your body feels as though you re not breathing enough. This causes hyperventilation or shortness of breath.

Sometimes thinking about your breathing may also cause you to take in more air than required by your body. This normally happens in cases of panic attacks where you are overly concerned about your breathing and you start taking control of breathing and over-breathe as a result, causing breathlessness. Here are tips on recognising and managing anxiety.

Reason #4: Breathlessness due to allergies and dust in the environment

Allergy is an immune response to substances that are generally not harmful. If your immune system is oversensitive to allergens such as dust, mold, dander, or pollen, it can cause breathlessness. These allergens block the airways of your lungs and cause breathing problems (but not severe).

Breathlessness, accompanied by wheezing and tightness in the chest, occurs in severe allergic reactions and can be life threatening. So, seek prompt medical care if you get these symptoms.

Reason # 5: Breathlessness due to obesity

Scientists found that the capacity of the respiratory muscle function decreases as you gain weight, especially in the center. This causes mild breathlessness, except if you are severely obese. Moreover, severe obesity also changes the signals from the brain regarding the pattern of breathing. A study published in the journal Thorax indicated that even a modest increase in body weight substantially worsens exercise performance such as climbing stairs. As a solution, the study suggests that maintaining a normal BMI can significantly improve your breathing. Did you know about these 22 health problems caused due to obesity?

Reason # 6: Breathlessness due to cancer

Cancer in or near the lungs causes the spreading of cancer cells and puts pressure on the airways. This narrows the airways and makes it difficult for air to pass through causing breathlessness. People with cancer, experience a more rapid onset of breathlessness and it affects their life profoundly. A palliative care study found that all patients found breathlessness frightening, disabling, and restricting. The family of the cancer patients too, experienced severe anxiety and helplessness as they witnessed the patient s suffering and felt powerless to reduce it.

Cancer of the ovary and liver, both lead to the buildup of fluid in the abdomen. The abdomen becomes swollen and pushes against the diaphragm. The increased pressure on diaphragm makes it difficult for the lungs to expand and breathlessness results.

Reason # 7: Breathing problems due to surgery, chemotherapy and radiotherapy:

Sometimes surgery of the lung or part of the lung can affect your breathing, more so, if you already had breathing problems before the surgery. Although not common, inflammation of lungs can occur with chemotherapy drugs such as bleomycin which can also cause breathing problems.

Similarly, treatment with the immunotherapy drug interleukin 2 (IL2) can sometimes cause breathlessness. The drug may make fluid leak out of the small blood vessels causing your blood pressure to lower. This causes swelling in your abdomen or lungs and breathlessness happens. Find out more about chemotherapy and its side effects.

Radiotherapy to the chest can also cause scarring or inflammation of the lung tissue. And it may worsen the breathing problems, especially if one is suffering from lung cancer. Right treatment will depend on the cause of your breathlessness. So, next time you feel your breathing is not right, do not neglect it and seek professional help. Breathe!

Watch how yoga can help you deal with Asthma:

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