Causes of Breathing Difficulty

Breathing difficulty is always a serious symptom. Shortness of breath can be fatal. Do not delay seeking medical help. Many of the causes of breathing difficulty are a medical emergency.

Simple Explanations: Not all cases of shortness of breath are caused by a severe underlying medical disorder. Some of the simpler explanations include:

  • Poor physical fitness. Shortness of breath on exertion may simply indicate a lack of physical conditioning, or declining fitness with age. However, it is common for patients to be in denial about breathing symptoms and incorrectly attribute it to their age or fitness level. Be sure to identify whether there are actually real breathing symptoms that may be caused by an underlying disease. Read more about: Shortness of Breath with Exertion.
  • Anxiety (e.g. anxiety attack)
  • Chest injury (Chest muscle strain)
  • Cough. If you have a respiratory infection causing cough, then some breathing symptoms are related to the cough. Some level of chest discomfort is normal with cough. However, take care, as a number of coughing disorders can leave to very severe respiratory distress in some cases (e.g. whooping cough, croup, bronchiolitis, epiglottitis, and many others).
  • Normal aging. Some level of decline in the ability to handle exercise or exertion is common with age (but it may also be hiding a more severe disorder).

Medical Emergencies: A large number of the possible causes of breathing difficulty or shortness of breath are life-threatening and require immediate emergency treatment. Some such examples include:

This is only a short list of some examples. Many others are possibly life-threatening, either immediately or with progression.

Chest Pain: Breathing difficult is often associated with chest pain. Chest pain that worsens on breathing is another possible symptom. If the issue is more pain rather than actual difficulty with inhaling or breathing (i.e. not shortness of breath), then the cause of the chest pain may be the more relevant diagnosis. Some examples of causes of chest pain that cause pain on breathing include:

Read more about: Chest Pain.

Acute Shortness of Breath: Acute breathing difficulty is often a medical emergency. Serious causes of breathing difficulty may include conditions such as:

Infectious Causes: Various infections can cause acute respiratory distress to the point of a medical emergency. Infectious causes of acute breathing difficulty may include:

Chronic Breathing Difficulty: Various disorders will cause slow onset of breathing symptoms or repeated bouts of shortness of breath (episodic or sometimes progressively worse). Causes of chronic problems with breathing difficulty may include:

Similar Symptoms: See also the causes of the various related breathing symptoms:



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Note: This site is for informational purposes only and is not medical advice. See your doctor or other qualified medical professional for all your medical needs.