Shortness of breath can be caused by many factors
September 13, 2009
Will has an image in his mind of his father clutching at his chest and gasping for breath. He died of a heart attack on the way to the hospital.
Twenty years later, that image came back to Will’s mind when he started getting breathless while climbing the stairs in his home. Eventually, he had to stop to catch his breath before reaching the second floor, and that’s when he decided to see his doctor.
Even fit athletes can become breathless after a sudden burst of activity or exercise in extreme temperatures or at high altitude. An overweight person will become breathless sooner than a normal weight individual given the same activity and level of fitness. A smoker also knows what it’s like to huff and puff prematurely.
Usually, however, shortness of breath occurs because of a problem that makes it difficult to deliver oxygen or remove carbon dioxide from body tissues. Most of these problems occur in either the heart or the lungs and are reason to seek medical attention.
HEART: Will’s father had breathlessness caused by a clot that was blocking a coronary artery. It was accompanied by other symptoms of a heart attack: pressure, fullness and a squeezing pain in the chest that lasted more than a few minutes. He had nausea and felt like he was going to faint.
Will was right in being concerned about his own shortness of breath since it signified a partial blockage in coronary arteries. It came on after a certain level of physical activity but got better when he stopped to rest for a few minutes. He required treatment – first with nitrates for temporary relief and later with balloon angioplasty or heart surgery.
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Shortness of breath can also occur because the heart muscle – weakened by a heart attack, uncontrolled hypertension or other causes – is not pumping blood vigorously or efficiently enough to meet the body’s needs. Other symptoms of heart failure include fluid retention, increased weight, swollen feet and ankles and increased difficulty breathing when lying down.
LUNGS: If you have shortness of breath accompanied by wheezing, you probably know that asthma is the cause. Exercise is a common asthma trigger, and even highly trained athletes can suddenly become breathless after mild exertion because of an asthma attack.
If you’ve been a smoker for several years or have been exposed to pollution or fumes in the workplace or at home, shortness of breath that gets progressively worse is probably a sign of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) or emphysema.
An infection in the lungs, ranging from a cold or bronchitis to pneumonia or tuberculosis can also cause shortness of breath.
NEUROMUSCULAR diseases such as multiple sclerosis, muscular dystrophy, Lou Gehrig’s disease, or brain damage caused by a stroke or a spinal cord injury can also cause breathing problems.
With any episode of shortness of breath, whether you know the cause or not, the immediate task is to restore normal breathing quickly.
While most individuals realize the need for more oxygen, they may not understand that carbon dioxide is also a major factor. Carbon dioxide (CO2) is produced as a waste product whenever the muscles are used. When CO2 levels in your blood rise, your brain issues a call for you to breathe deeper and more rapidly until these levels return to normal.
The first task is to relax. When your muscles are tense, they are continuing to work and producing more carbon dioxide-making your breathlessness even worse. Stop what you’re doing and sit down, if possible to take the load off your muscles.
Lung disorders such as asthma and emphysema affect the ability to exhale efficiently. So it’s important to take the time to exhale completely before taking the next breath.
See your doctor right away if you have shortness of breath after slight exertion or while at rest; wheezing; shortness of breath plus a fever, chills and cough; swollen feet and ankles and trouble breathing when you’re lying down.
If you’re frequently feeling mild breathlessness, the best advice is to stop smoking, start exercising and get in shape.
Atmospheric pressure at sea level is much higher (by about 35 percent) than it is in Grand County, where the altitude is between 7,000 and 8,500 feet above sea level. Returning to Grand County from a lower elevation can cause changes in blood circulation and lung function. Pulmonologist Dr. Val Lindquist recommends stopping in Denver and resting for a night or two when returning from sea level.
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