Breathlessness, known medically as dyspnoea, is when people describe a feeling of being out of breath, short of breath or they find it uncomfortable to breathe. It is an unpleasant feeling which can happen to anyone. If it occurs outside of a situation you would normally expect, for example when exercising, or if it is accompanied by other symptoms such as chest pain, it is important to speak to your doctor straight away to rule out a concerning underlying cause.
Breathlessness can be a sign of many lung conditions such as asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, chest infection, a blood clot (pulmonary embolus) or lung cancer. It can also occur if you are overweight or as a symptom of anxiety or panic attacks. Medication, anaemia and pain can all cause breathlessness.
It is very important to manage your lifestyle. Losing weight, stopping smoking and stopping drinking alcohol are all advised. If you are anaemic, then eating foods rich in iron will be a helpful first step. There are some easy ways to manage your breathlessness symptoms at home. Slow deep breathing in through your nose and out through your mouth is a good technique to ensure good oxygen delivery to the lungs and it's a work-out for the muscles that control your breathing. There are other breathing techniques that you can try to find one that works for you. You should have a nice open posture to allow as much air into your lungs as possible. Staying active and resting is a fine balance with breathlessness. Keep healthy but when you feel your symptoms coming on be sure to take a rest and keep the things you need close by you.
If you experience breathlessness, you should always discuss this with your doctor. Especially if the breathlessness is severe, lasting a long time (greater than a month), if it is accompanied by other symptoms such as coughing, palpitations, ankle swelling or difficulty breathing upon laying down flat. It is important to seek urgent medical attention if you are struggling to breathe and experiencing chest pain. This is particularly important if you have chest pain that goes down your arm or to your jaw, nausea or vomiting, you are sweaty and pale, or you become suddenly breathless. This could be due to a heart attack or a clot in the lungs and requires immediate attention by calling 999 for an ambulance.
Your doctor will take a detailed history from you, take your vitals such as pulse rate, oxygen levels in your tissues and your blood pressure, and they will examine your heart and lungs. Depending on their assessment, they may refer you urgently to hospital, or they may order blood tests, lung function tests with the practice nurse or hospital clinic. They may order a chest X-ray to look at the lungs, an ECG (electrocardiogram) to looks at the electrical activity of the heart or an echocardiogram, a scan of the structure of the heart. They may decide to refer you to a lung or heart specialist for further assessment.