This article was updated on April 29, 2020 to include additional symptoms of the 2019 coronavirus.
Shortness of breath, or feeling “winded,” can leave you struggling to draw a full breath. You might feel like you’ve just run at a sprint, climbed several flights of stairs, or taken an aerobics class.
These sensations may be familiar if you exercise regularly — but outside the context of exercise, they can be alarming.
When you’re short of breath, you might feel like you can’t get enough air into your lungs — and you can’t do it quickly enough.
It may seem as though you’re running short on oxygen. It may be more difficult to inhale and exhale. Sometimes you might be compelled to draw a breath before you’ve even finished the last exhale.
Symptoms that appear with shortness of breath include:
- a tight sensation in your chest
- feeling like you need to breathe more or more quickly
- feeling like your body can’t get enough oxygen quickly enough
You might notice yourself becoming increasingly short of breath over a long period of time, or it could happen out of the blue.
Sometimes it can even strike while you’re at rest, such as when you’re sitting at your desk at work. Prolonged sitting can cause shortness of breath by way of bad posture.
But you don’t have to experience a full-blown attack to feel short of breath. Low-level anxiety can cause this too.
Shortness of breath can often occur due to other circumstances, such as:
- high altitudes
- poor air quality, such as that due to carbon monoxide or smog
- temperature extremes
- strenuous exercise
Having knots in your muscles, especially on trigger points, can sometimes make you feel short of breath.
Certain medical conditions can cause shortness of breath, both acute and chronic, such as:
- congestive heart failure
- chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)
- Guillain-Barré syndrome
- heart arrhythmia or heart attack
- heart disease
- lung disease
- myasthenia gravis
- pulmonary edema
- pulmonary embolism
- pulmonary arterial hypertension
One of the signature symptoms of COVID-19 is shortness of breath. Other common symptoms are fever, cough, and fatigue.
Most people who get COVID-19 will experience mild to moderate symptoms that can be treated at home. If you’re sick and suspect that you may have COVID-19, the
- Stay home and separate yourself from all family members and pets as much as possible.
- Cover your coughs and sneezes and wear a cloth mask if you must be around other people, but try to stay 6 feet away at minimum.
- Stay in touch with your doctor and call ahead if you end up seeking medical attention.
- Wash your hands often.
- Avoid sharing household items with other people in the house.
- Disinfect common surfaces often.
You should also be monitoring your symptoms while at home. You should seek emergency medical attention if you experience any of the following symptoms:
- trouble breathing
- heaviness or tightness in the chest
- bluish lips
You’re at risk for shortness of breath or other related conditions when:
- your muscles are weak, especially those involved in breathing, such as your diaphragm
- you have asthma or other chronic respiratory conditions such as COPD or cystic fibrosis
- your hemoglobin levels are low
- you’re a smoker
- your work or living space includes things that trigger your asthma
There are several alarming symptoms that you shouldn’t ignore, especially when accompanied by shortness of breath. These include:
- a “winded” feeling that persists even after you’ve been resting for 30 minutes
- swollen ankles and feet
- coughing, chills, and elevated body temperature
- wheezing or a whistling sound when you inhale and exhale
- a high-pitched sound when you breathe, known as a stridor
- blue fingertips or lips
- worsening shortness of breath after you’ve used an inhaler
- difficulty breathing while lying flat on your back
- pain or pressure in your chest
If you have any combination of these symptoms along with shortness of breath, it’s important to call your doctor or visit an emergency room for immediate medical care.
Being short of breath isn’t the same thing as having trouble breathing. When you’re having difficulty breathing normally, you might feel like:
- you can’t completely inhale or exhale
- your throat or chest are closing up or it feels like there’s a squeezing sensation around them
- there’s an obstruction, narrowing, or tightening of your airway
- something is physically keeping you from breathing
Difficulty breathing is also an emergency that requires immediate medical attention.
Once your doctor examines you and determines a diagnosis, they may prescribe medications like bronchodilators to help you breathe easier.
If you’re anemic, you’ll need to take prescription supplements to raise your iron levels.
Your doctor will also recommend measures, such as quitting smoking, to help you get more oxygen.
If your doctor diagnoses a serious or more complex health condition, they’ll recommend treatments accordingly.