Millions of Americans have, at some point in their life, experienced shortness of breath, or dyspnea. Sometimes it’s a sign of being out of shape, sometimes it’s from being overly excited, but sometimes it’s due to a severe medical condition.
A study performed by the British Lung Foundation, found the following surprising statistics:
3 in 10 adults gasp for air after climbing a flight of stairs
4 in 10 gasp for air when trying to run to catch a bus
2 in 10 suffer from shortness of breath at some point during the day
25% have difficulty breathing during sex
Most adults experience shortness of breath at least 6 times a week
Study participants were given a survey asking about their activity and stamina, and 25% admitted to exercising less than once a week.
So are we out of shape? Or is shortness of breath a sign of significant disease?
What causes shortness of breath?
Being “short of breath” is a response by both the heart and lungs to not enough oxygen getting circulated throughout the body. This could be due to a variety of factors:
Lung disease prevents blood from becoming oxygenated such as:
- pneumonia (lung infection)
- pulmonary embolism (blood clot)
- pneumothorax (collapsed lung)
- bronchitis (inflammation of the bronchioles)
- interstitial lung disease
- lung cancer
- choking or obstruction
- anaphylaxis, severe allergies
All of these may give the sensation of being “short of breath.” The body then detects the lungs can’t do their job so signals are sent to dilate bronchioles to increase oxygenation, increase respiratory rate and increase heart rate to rush more blood into the lungs.
Heart conditions that can cause shortness of breath include:
- heart attack
- congestive heart failure
- inflammation/infection of the heart or its valves (pericarditis, endocarditis)
- arrhythmia – abnormal heart rhythm
These above conditions could prevent the heart from doing its job, pumping blood, so if the body detects lack of oxygenated blood, signals get sent to increase heart rate and respiratory rate as well.
Anemia is a condition where the body lacks enough healthy red blood cells and/or hemoglobin responsible for bringing oxygen to organs and tissues. Suffering from anemia may result in shortness of breath.
So when is shortness of breath worrisome?
If one is out of shape, as soon as the exercise, or climbing the flight of stairs, ceases, the respiratory rate will normalize within minutes. If it doesn’t or if other symptoms present with the shortness of breath, an underlying medical condition could be the cause.
Concerning co-symptoms include:
- chest pain
- pain with breathing
- sputum production
- blurry vision
Although current guidelines recommend exercising with moderate intensity 150 minutes a week, any activity that induces shortness of breath or any of the above symptoms should be evaluated by a medical provider. If one has been inactive for years and wants to start becoming physically fit, its best to discuss a conditioning plan and current heart health with one’s medical provider with protocols on how to address shortness of breath during workouts.