Please note: This information was current at the time of publication but now may be out of date. This handout provides a general overview and may not apply to everyone. For regularly updated information on a variety of health topics, please visit, the AAFP patient education website.

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Am Fam Physician. 2005;71(8):1538

What is shortness of breath?

When you are short of breath, it may feel like you can't catch your breath or your chest may feel tight. Often, it is worse when you exercise or are being active. It can be worse when you lie down flat. You may have other symptoms such as a cough, chest pains, or fever. If you have any of these problems, tell your doctor.

What may be causing me to be short of breath?

Shortness of breath can be caused by many things. If you are short of breath with a cough and/or fever you may have a chest infection or pneumonia (say: new-MOAN-yuh).

If you are wheezing, or if asthma runs in your family, you may have asthma.

If you smoke and have been getting short of breath over a period of time, you may have a chronic problem, especially if you cough every day.

Heart failure can cause fluid to collect in your lungs and make breathing harder when you lie flat on your back. It also may cause swelling in your legs.

Breathing problems that occur if you feel scared or worried can be caused by stress. These are sometimes called panic attacks.

Less common causes of breathing problems are lung cancer, a blood clot in the lungs, air leakage around the lungs, and scarring of the lung tissue.

What tests may be done?

Your doctor can help find the cause of your breathing problem by asking you questions and doing an exam. You doctor also may order some tests.

To find the cause of your shortness of breath, your doctor may order a chest x-ray or an ECG. Your doctor may measure your breathing and the oxygen level in your blood. You also may need to have a blood test.

What can I do to help my breathing?

Your doctor may order certain treatment when he or she finds the cause of your shortness of breath. You also can do some things that will help. If you smoke, you need to stop. Ask your doctor for help. Avoid chemicals and strong smells that can bother your lungs. Ask your doctor about flu and pneumonia shots.

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