Shortness of Breath

What is shortness of breath?

When you are short of breath, you may feel like you can't get enough air or your chest may feel tight. Sometimes the feeling is worse when you are physically active or when you lie down flat. You may have other symptoms such as a cough, chest pains or a fever. If you are experiencing any of these problems, tell your doctor.

What could be causing my shortness of breath?

Shortness of breath can be caused by many things, including the following: If you are short of breath with a cough and/or fever, you may have a chest infection or pneumonia (say: "new-moan-yuh"). Less common causes of breathing problems are lung cancer, a blood clot in the lungs, air leakage around the lungs and scarring of the lung tissue.

What tests will my doctor perform?

Your doctor can help find the cause of your breathing problem by asking you questions about your symptoms and performing a physical exam. Your doctor also may order some tests.

To find the cause of your shortness of breath, your doctor may order a chest X-ray. He or she may also order an electrocardiogram (also called an ECG). During this test, your doctor will have you lie down so your heart can be monitored. The ECG machine creates a picture, or tracing, that shows your heart's electrical signals. You may need to have a computerized tomography (CT) scan, which is another type of X-ray. Your doctor may measure the strength of your breathing (called a spirometer) and the oxygen level in your blood. You also may need to have a blood test.

What can I do to improve my breathing?

If you smoke, you need to stop. Ask your doctor for help. Also, avoid breathing chemicals that can bother your lungs, such as fumes from paint and car exhaust. If your doctor says it's okay, you should try to get plenty of exercise.

More Information

For more information talk to your doctor.


Evaluation of Chronic Dyspnea by NG Karnani, GM Reisfield, GR Wilson. (American Family Physician April 15, 2005,

Reviewed/Updated: 07/08
Created: 04/05