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What causes shortness of breath??


Shortness of breath on exertion is a problem that describes having difficulty breathing when engaged in a simple activity such as walking up stairs. .

Alternative Names

Breathlessness on exertion, exertional dyspnea, dyspnea on effort, exertional breathlessness, short of breath with activity, SOBOE, dyspnea on exertion, DOE.


Many people experience feel short of breath during strenuous activity if they are not accustomed to exercise. If you have a sudden onset of difficulty breathing doing a normal routine, it may be a medical emergency. Shortness of breath on exertion is a sign that your lungs are not allowing enough oxygenation/ventilation (expiration of carbon dioxide) – this is an important warning sign. Shortness of breath occurs as a result of the interaction of many factors – physical, psychological, environmental, and social. Dyspnea on exertion is one of the most common reasons for people to request evaluation for disability impairment rating based on respiratory illness.

Associated Diagnoses or Causes


Emphysema is one of the diseases that comprises COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease). Emphysemainvolves gradual damage of lung tissue, specifically thinning and destruction of the alveoli or air sacs.

Heart failure ( congestive heart failure, CHF)

Heart failure is a condition in which the heart can’t pump enough blood to meet the body’s needs. Heart failuredoes not mean that your heart has stopped or is about to stop working. It means that your heart is not able to pump blood the way it should. It can affect one or both sides of the heart.


Asthma is a chronic disease involving the airways in the lungs. These airways, or bronchial tubes, allow air to come in and out of the lungs. If you have asthmayour airways are always inflamed. They become even more swollen and the muscles around the airways can tighten when something triggers your symptoms.

Poor physical conditioning

Poor physical fitness creates some common symptoms, such as being injured easily during strenuous activity. Other signs include:

  • Shortness of breath during activity
  • Weak muscles or aching muscles after minimal activity
  • Chronic fatigue and low vitality
  • Mood swings
  • Insomnia or poor sleeping habits
  • Chronic health problems


Pneumonia is an infection in one or both of the lungs. Many germs, such as bacteria, viruses, and fungi, can causepneumonia. You can also get pneumonia by inhaling a liquid or chemical.

Pulmonary embolism

Pulmonary embolism occurs when a blood clot gets lodged in an artery in the lung, blocking blood flow to part of the lung. Blood clots most often originate in the legs and travel up through the right side of the heart and into the lungs.


Anaphylaxis is a severe, potentially life-threatening allergic reaction. It can occur within seconds or minutes of exposure to something you’re allergic to, such as peanuts or bee stings.
If you are allergic to a substance, your immune system overreacts to this allergen by releasing chemicals that cause allergy symptoms.

Pneumothorax (Collapsed Lung)

pneumothorax (noo-moe-THOR-aks) is a collapsed lung. Apneumothorax occurs when air leaks into the space between your lung and chest wall. This air pushes on the outside of your lung and makes it collapse.

Abnormal Heart Rhythms

Abnormal heart rhythms (arrhythmias) are sequences of heartbeats that are irregular, too fast, too slow, or conducted via an abnormal electrical pathway through the heartHeart disorders are the most common cause of an abnormal heart rhythm.

Pulmonary Edema

Pulmonary edema is a condition involving fluid buildup in the lungs. Sudden onset (acute) pulmonary edema is a medical emergency. Symptoms include shortness of breath, cough, decreased exercise tolerance or chest pain.

Lung Cancer

Lung cancer is a type of cancer that begins in thelungs. Your lungs are two spongy organs in your chest that take in oxygen when you inhale and release carbon dioxide when you exhale. Lung canceris the leading cause of cancer deaths in the United States, among both men and women.

Congestive (Dilated) Cardiomyopathy

Dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM) is a condition in which the heart’s ability to pump blood is decreased because the heart’s main pumping chamber, the left ventricle, is enlarged and weakened. In some cases, it prevents the heart from relaxing and filling with blood as it should.


Bronchiectasis is a chronic condition where the walls of the bronchi are thickened from inflammation and infection. People with bronchiectasis have periodic flare-ups of breathing difficulties, called exacerbations.

Deviated Septum

deviated septum is a condition in which the nasalseptum — the bone and cartilage that divide the nasal cavity of the nose in half — is significantly off center, or crooked, making breathing difficult. Most people have some sort of imbalance in the size of their breathing passages.

Allergic Rhinitis

Allergic rhinitis, also known as hay fever, is a type of inflammation in the nose which occurs when the immune system overreacts to allergens in the air. Signs and symptoms include a runny or stuffy nose, sneezing, red, itchy, and watery eyes, and swelling around the eyes. The fluid from the nose is usually clear.

Diagnosis and Treatments

A complete and thorough history and physical by a qualified provider to assess and treat any underlying condition. Additional diagnostic studies may include chest x-rays, CT scan, exercise testing and exercise tolerance testing, pulmonary function studies and laboratory studies. Treatment will depend on the findings.

Head Injury

head injury is any trauma to the scalp, skull, or brain. The injury may be only a minor bump on the skull or a serious brain injuryHead injury can be either closed or open (penetrating). A closed head injury means you received a hard blow to the head from striking an object, but the object did not break the skull.


Epiglottitis is inflammation of the epiglottis—the flap at the base of the tongue that keeps food from going into the trachea (windpipe). Symptoms are usually rapid in onset and include trouble swallowing which can result in drooling, changes to the voice, fever, and an increased breathing rate.


Empyema is defined as a collection of pus in the pleural cavity, gram-positive, or culture from the pleural fluid. Empyema is usually associated with pneumonia but may also develop after thoracic surgery or thoracic trauma.

Respiratory Acidosis

Respiratory acidosis is a condition that occurs when the lungs can’t remove enough of the carbon dioxide (CO2) produced by the body. Excess CO2 causes the pH of blood and other bodily fluids to decrease, making them too acidic

Chronic Bronchitis

Chronic bronchitis is one type of COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease). The inflamed bronchial tubes produce a lot of mucus. This leads to coughing and difficulty breathing. Cigarette smoking is the most common cause. Breathing in air pollution, fumes, or dust over a long period of time may also cause it.

Call your provider :

When shortness of breath on exertion limits your activities of daily living.

Call 911:

For any sudden onset of feeling short of breath, especially if accompanied by:

  • Air hunger
  • Gasping for breath
  • Choking
  • Chest pain
  • Confusion
  • Passing out or fainting
  • Sweating profusely
  • Pallor (pale skin)
  • Cyanosis (skin turns blue)
  • Dizziness
  • Coughing up blood
  • Swelling in the legs or ankles

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