Sudden shortness of breath, or breathing difficulty (dyspnoea), is the most common reason for visiting a hospital accident and emergency department. It's also one of the most common reasons people call 999 for an ambulance. It's normal to get out of breath when you've overexerted yourself, but when breathlessness comes on suddenly and unexpectedly, it's usually a warning sign of a medical condition.
The information below outlines the most common reasons for:
sudden shortness of breath
long-term shortness of breath
This guide shouldn't be used to self-diagnose your condition, but should give you an idea of what's causing your breathlessness.
Causes of sudden shortness of breath
Sudden and unexpected breathlessness is most likely to be caused by one of the following health conditions.
It could be an asthma attack. This means your airways have narrowed and you'll produce more phlegm (sticky mucus), which causes you to wheeze and cough. You'll feel breathless because it's difficult to move air in and out of your airways.
Your GP may advise you to use a spacer device with your asthma inhaler. This delivers more medicine to your lungs, helping to relieve your breathlessness.
Pneumonia (lung inflammation) may also cause shortness of breath and a cough. It's usually caused by an infection, so you'll need to take antibiotics.
If you have COPD, it's likely your breathlessness is a sign this condition has suddenly got worse.
It's possible to have a "silent" heart attack without experiencing all the obvious symptoms, such as chest pain and overwhelming anxiety.
In this case, shortness of breath may be the only warning sign you're having a heart attack. If you or your GP think this is the case, they'll give you aspirin and admit you to hospital straight away.
Causes of long-term breathlessness
Long-term breathlessness is usually caused by:
obesity or being unfit
poorly controlled asthma
chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) – permanent damage to the lungs usually caused by years of smoking
anaemia – a low level of oxygen in the blood caused by a lack of red blood cells or haemoglobin (the part of red blood cells that carries oxygen)
heart failure – when your heart is having trouble pumping enough blood around your body, usually because the heart muscle has become too weak or stiff to work properly.
Shortness of breath is a symptom that can mean any number of things when it comes to men's health. It can signal a heart attack or congestive heart failure. Or you might have a lung disease such as lung cancer, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), chronic bronchitis, emphysema, asthma, or pulmonary hypertension. Shortness of breath also is a symptom associated with anemia.
*You should call your GP immediately if you have shortness of breath.