The most common causes of shortness of breath are often serious illnesses.  Not only can this be a frightening experience but the worry that comes from having this symptom can actually exacerbate the problem.  Conditions that affect almost every system of the body can cause shortness of breath.  Causes can be both physical and psychological and can be quite serious.  Shortness of breath should be addressed by a physician and if breathing is very difficult an emergency room visit is essential.  It is important to try to stay as calm as possible while seeking help so that symptoms are not worsen by emotional upset.  Physical activity should immediately cease when someone experiences difficulty breathing and medical attention should be sought out.  While there are multiple conditions that can cause shortness of breath the most common causes fall into the areas listed below:

Asthma and Other Obstructive Airway Diseases

These conditions can all cause shortness of breath because of airway constriction, inflammatory processes and even destruction of lung structures and tissues.   With these conditions diagnosed, patients are often fully aware of what is occurring when breathing becomes difficult.  Rescue medications for sudden onset of symptoms, often delivered via a handheld inhaler or a nebulizer which allows for inhalation of a mist of the medication, are often on hand and will do a good job alleviating the symptoms.  If a patient cannot get his breathing under control or if symptoms worsen in any way, it is vital that he seeks out emergency help.  These conditions are common and often people forget that complications can be life threatening and require immediate medical attention.  The seriousness of these conditions should never be overlooked. 


Bronchitis, pneumonia, the common cold, croup, sarcoidosis, tuberculosis and other infections of any part of the airway can cause a patient to experience shortness of breath.  While this can be a normal course of the disease, it is not normal for the human body.  Patients may require medications used for asthmatics, may require oxygen therapy, and may need supervision in a hospital setting to ensure that breathing is not impeded to the point that life is in danger.  Barring permanent lung damage from one of these infections, patients recover the ability to breathe normally as they begin to recover and often are able to breathe normally even before the recovery period for the infection has been completed.  Many of these infections are quite contagious so it is important to follow precautions such as wearing a mask and disinfecting surfaces and remembering to frequently wash ones hands if family members have any of these illnesses.

Psychological Issues

Anxiety disorders are among the main causes of shortness of breath.  Patients who have these disorders often experience panic attacks.  These attacks are often so debilitating that they are mistaken for a heart attack or other serious physical issue.  Hyperventilation often accompanies these attacks. When a patient hyperventilates he breathes rapidly and often depletes more carbon dioxide from the blood stream than normal breathing would.  This results in an imbalance that causes one to feel breathless or short of breath, lightheaded and have multiple other symptoms.  Panic attacks generally need to be addressed with a good mental health clinician and often result in a trip to the emergency room in order to address the physical manifestations of these anxiety driven episodes.  These should not be discounted as something that is “only in the patient’s mind” as anxiety and other mental health disorders are of real medical concern and should be treated as such.


Anyone who has fractured a rib will attest to the great discomfort that this type of injury brings about.  Rib fractures often cause breathing to be painful and labored and shortness of breath will often accompany these other symptoms.  Getting hit in the stomach can cause a diaphragmatic spasm often referred to as “getting the wind knocked out of you.”  This is not a long term injury but the spasm will cause extreme shortness of breath for what appears to the injured party as an eternity but is in reality only a matter of seconds in most cases.  If a patient does not recover or loses consciousness with a hit to the chest, stomach or “solar plexus” it is imperative to get immediate emergency medical treatment.  While this is rare, there can be grave complications that are not related to these spasms when this type of injury occurs.

Heart Conditions

These are some of the most serious causes of shortness of breath.  Patients with chronic conditions will often have instructions from their medical caregiver on how to handle episodic or chronic shortness of breath.  For those who experience an acute onset, those who have not been diagnosed with a heart issue but are symptomatic, or those who have no instructions from a physician it is vital and can save a life if emergency treatment is sought with the utmost of speed,  Heart ailments that commonly cause shortness of breath include, but are not limited to, heart attack, angina, valve disorders, congestive heart disease, chronic heart failure, arrhythmias, pericardial and other infections and congenital defects.  In most of these instances unexplained and sudden shortness of breath is a complication that requires at the very least speaking to one’s cardiology specialist.  Heart conditions can be chronic or acute, and often can be life threatening.  Living with these conditions can be disabling, but with proper treatment life can go on as normally as possible.  Periodic shortness of breath can be common with some of these conditions and can be indicative of increased severity or the onset of a change in condition with others.

Shortness of breath is a serious symptom of many conditions.  In all cases a patient should be aware of when it is necessary to seek emergency medical attention.  Patients who are unsure should always err on the side of caution, remain as calm as possible as to not exacerbate the situation at hand and should get help as quickly as possible.  No matter what causes shortness of breath, medical attention is the key to working through the issue.