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Breathlessness (Shortness of Breath)


  • Breathlessness is a condition where someone experience difficulty in breathing and it usually more prominent when someone is doing any physical activities.
  • Breathlessness could be acute or chronic :
    • Acute breathlessness is when someone having sudden onset of difficulty in breathing and disappear few days after treatment.
    • Chronic breathlessness is when someone having daily and long-term difficulty in breathing.
  • Breathlessness is an important symptom that must be given attention. This is because breathlessness may be an indication of someone having respiratory of cardiovascular problems.
  • Among respiratory disease that may be presented with breathlessness includes: bronchial asthma, acute lung infection (pneumonia), chronic lung infection such as Tuberculosis, pulmonary edema (fluid in your lungs), chronic obstructive airway disease and lungs cancer.
  • Some cardiovascular disease may also present with breathlessness such as heart failure, heart attack and cardiac arrhythmias.
  • Anxiety disorders and obesity.


  • If you are having sudden breathlessness accompanied by pain and tightness in the chest you may suffered from acute heart attack, pneumothorax (air leaks into the space between your lungs and chest wall) or Pulmonary  embolism (blockage of the lung’s main artery or one of its branches).
  • If you are having episodic breathlessness with wheezing and cough, you could be having an asthmatic attack or an airway infection that causes your airway to narrow.
  • If you are having long term worsening breathlessness with history of exposure to cigarette smoke, dust and chemical aerosol, you may suffer from Chronic Obstructive Lung Disease.
  • If you used to work in a place where you were exposed to asbestos, wood dust, chemical dust you may have Occupational Lung Disease.
  • If your legs swells and you have breathlessness on lying down you may suffered from heart failure.
  • If you easily tired, appeared pale and breathlessness especially during physical activity you may have anemia.
  • If you start to breath rapidly and feels dizzy or numbness in the hand and mouth you may suffered from hyperventilation (rapid breathing due to excessive physical activity or emotional stress).
  • If your breathlessness accompanied with fever, cough or coughing blood, losing weight, you may suffers from lung infection such as tuberculosis, lung cancer or pulmonary embolism.
  • If you have fever, watery nose and coughing with sputum, you may suffer from lung infection such as bronchitis and pneumonia.

Self Help

  • Go to the nearest Emergency Department or health clinic or contact an ambulance service immediately if you are having sudden breathlessness with pain and tightness of the chest, severe asthma, lips and hand turns blue and feel near fainting.
  • See a doctor immediately if you have any of these conditions: breathlessness with a mild physical activity, breathlessness on lying down and need to use few pillows to relieve it, noisy breathing, breathlessness with fever and cough.
  • If you suffers from long term breathlessness due to chronic lungs disease you are advised to stop smoking, do regular physical exercise , avoid pollutant environment and allergens. You need to take medication as prescribed by your doctors.


  • Your doctor will ask you a few questions do physical examination and perform few test to identify your illness.
  • Your doctor may perform the following tests: chest X-ray, electrocardiography (ECG), lung function test (peak flow meter, spirometry), blood and sputum examination.
  • Your doctor will prescribe the medicine according to the diagnosis.
Last Reviewed : 13 May 2016
Writer : Dr. Salmiah Md Sharif
Translator : Dr. Zainal Fitri b. Zakaria
Accreditor : Dr. Sri Wahyu bt. Taher