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Shortness of breath

Experiencing shortness of breath can be distressing. One Heart Clinic can help identify the cause of the problem and work towards finding a solution.

What is shortness of breath?

Shortness of breath - also referred to as dyspnea and breathlessness - is difficulty or discomfort which is experienced when breathing. Shortness of breath can be a symptom of a number of conditions, from a lack of fitness to serious diseases.

The sensation of not being able to take a full breath may happen when exercising, but also when sitting still. Shortness of breath can either develop and increase its regularity over the mid to long term, or arise more suddenly. The symptom can be a sign of another medical condition, but it should be noted that breathlessness does not directly damage the lungs.


What causes shortness of breath?

Because the lungs and the heart are vital to the transportation of oxygen and carbon dioxide, shortness of breath is caused by lung and heart conditions most of the time.

Because the brain regulates breathing, a rise in the level of carbon dioxide in the blood can cause the brain to tell the body to breath more quickly. This can, in turn, lead to shortness of breath. A similar effect can be caused when there is a high level of acid in the blood, from either lactic acid build-up, or an infection.

There are two main types of shortness of breath; acute and chronic.

Among the causes of acute shortness of breath are; chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), asthma, carbon monoxide poisoning, allergic reactions, pneumonia, heart attack, anaemia, heart failure, abnormal heart beating and an enlarged heart.

Among the causes of chronic shortness of breath are; chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), asthma, obesity, abnormal heart function, pleurisy, lung cancer and other lung diseases.

How is shortness of breath assessed and what treatment will I need if I have shortness of breath?

Your doctor will typically ask you a series of questions which are designed to assess your condition, such as any other symptoms, the frequency of your shortness of breath, and when it usually arises. They are likely to use a stethoscope to listen to your lungs and heart, and could conduct further tests such as an echocardiogram, a chest scan, a blood test or pulmonary function test.

The way in which shortness of breath is treated will depend on the nature of the symptom and the cause. If asthma is found to be the main cause, you may be advised to avoid triggers such as smoking or given oxygen. If the cause is anaemia, you might be prescribed iron supplements. And if the problem is found to stem from the airways, treatments such as bronchodilators can be used to relax the airways.

Do you have any questions related to shortness of breath, or have been experiencing the symptom? Call One Heart Clinic on 0203 9838 001.

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We believe the best cardiac care can only be achieved by the best cardiologists in their fields, working together, for you and your heart. Our consultants are able to offer appointments throughout the week and at weekends.

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"I cannot stress how great Dr Sen was and still is as my cardiac consultant. Though everyone on the NHS team has been brilliant, Dr Sen was the problem solver when things went wrong and was the grease in the wheels when things slowed down. I'm very grateful to have Dr Sen looking out for me, it's like having my own private doctor, he's quite remarkable!"

"I found Dr Sen and his team very friendly, welcoming and professional. From the moment I entered the Clinic the reception staff, team of nurses and Dr Sen himself were very thorough. Peter and Sam who carried out my tests were also very friendly. A lovely team of people who put my mind at ease each time I visited. I wish them all well and thank them for the wonderful work they do. Dr Sen is a credit to his profession and I know he does a lot of good work not just in England but around the world. Here's to it continuing for a very long time."