Causes of shortness of breath

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In order to figure out why you are short of breath, you have to understand the contributing factors and conditions that may cause you to become breathless. Disclaimer: This information is for educational purposes to help prevent or manage victims of shortness of breath enrol in workplace approved training programs. There are two aspects of breathing:

shortness of breath
Learn the reasons why people have shortness of breath by reading through this article.
  1. Ventilation
  2. Respiration

Inhibiting or interfering with either factor can lead to shortness of breath.  The following are the causes of breathlessness:

The body requires more air

Shortness of breath does not necessarily mean your body is starving for oxygen. While oxygen craving is one major reason why you may become breathless, the need to expel excessive carbon dioxide from the body is also a cause of shortness of breath. The following are situations where your body requires more air:

  • Exercise
  • Heart attack
  • Shock
  • Sepsis—a severe infection

The only treatment of shortness of breath in these cases is to stop or treat the causes. This can be done by taking a break, in case of exercises so that your body can recover the oxygen debt and treating the heart attack or shock. In many cases, supplemental oxygen is given to patients to treat shortness of breath due to oxygen starvation. However, there are many evidences that show an oxygen concentrated supply can lead to major complications when air flow is not the issue related to shortness of breath—even in case of a heart attack. Keep in mind that the air supply can be the causative factor of the problem and not the demand itself.

Limited Airflow

As mentioned earlier, any barrier in the natural mechanism of ventilation and respiration can lead to shortness of breath. An obstruction in the airflow, from the nostrils till the alveoli and from the red blood cells to the oxygen demanding cells and tissues, can lead to inhibition in airflow causing shortness of breath. A restricted airflow can prevent oxygen from reaching the lungs and cells and carbon dioxide being removed from them.

The mechanical obstructions that restrict air flow include:

  • Drowning
  • Strangulation
  • Chest injuries: broken ribs, flail chest
  • Puncture wounds in the chest: stab wounds, gunshots etc.
  • Spinal injury on the neck—paralysis
  • Choking
  • Collapsed lung–pneumothorax

Diseases that cause asphyxia or inhibition of the airflow include:

  • Inflammation or swelling: asthma
  • Congestion: pneumonia

Problems in oxygen transport to the bloodstream

Sometimes, inhibition of oxygen transport to the red blood cells may also cause shortness of breath and panting. The causes of shortness of breath in such cases are often severe and should be reported to the emergency room as soon as possible. Complications that give rise to oxygen transport inhibition include:

  • Carbon dioxide poisoning: cased due to carbon monoxide irreversibly binding to red blood cells, preventing oxygen from entering—often during a fire.
  • Anemia: caused due to lack of red blood cells. Red blood cells are the carriers of oxygen in the blood, without them, the oxygen cannot be transported to oxygen demanding cells of the body.

Lack of oxygen in the airflow

This is a condition that cannot be treated because it is an environmental issue. Causes include:

  • High altitudes: at high altitudes, the concentration of oxygen in the air is too low to sometimes meet the body’s needs.
  • Confined spaces: this limits the air supply and thus the oxygen composition. When you are breathing in oxygen and breathing out carbon dioxide in a limited oxygen-confined space, the concentration of oxygen and carbon dioxide will be the same as what you are exhaling, allowing the diffusion gradient to prevent the absorption of oxygen and the removal of oxygen in the body.

 Learn More About Asthma and Shortness of Breath


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