Shortness of Breath - Why can’t I fill my lungs?


What is Shortness of Breath or Breathlessness? Shortness of breath or breathlessness refers to the sensation of not being able to take a full breath. You may feel as though you have just sprinted or climbed a number of flights of stairs but haven’t actually had any physical exertion. 

If you’re used to physical exercise you may be familiar with this sensation of fast, shallow breathing as you try to catch your breath, but if you are not, it can be quite disturbing.

Shortness of breath should not be confused with difficulty breathing. Difficulty breathing refers to the closing of airways or the inability to take a proper breath, rather than the sensation of not being able to take a full breath.

Diagnosing Shortness of Breath

If you are experiencing breathlessness you should see a doctor to have it properly diagnosed. While it may be nothing serious and simply a sign that you need to lose weight or get more exercise, the inability to breathe properly should be fully diagnosed to ensure that it is not a symptom of something more serious.

Shortness of Breath symptoms

Common symptoms of breathlessness include rapid shallow breathing or the feeling that you need to breathe faster and tightness in the chest.

Depending on the underlying cause of breathlessness there may be other symptoms, including weakness, chest pain, fever, chills and coughing.

Causes of Shortness of Breath

Common causes of shortness of breath include:

  • Anemia
  • Asthma
  • Collapsed lung (pneumothorax)
  • Congestive heart failure
  • Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD)
  • Exertion
  • Heart attack
  • Obesity
  • Pulmonary embolism (blood clot in the lungs)
  • Smoking
  • Thyroid conditions - both an overactive thyroid (hyperthyroidism) and underactive thyroid (hypothyroidism) can cause shortness of breath 
  • Viral Infections such as bronchitis, pneumonia and COVID-19

Less common causes of shortness of breath include:

  • Allergic reaction (anaphylaxis) 
  • Anxiety/Panic attacks
  • Lung cancer
  • Multiple Sclerosis and other neurological disorders
  • Sarcoidosis

Shortness of Breath and Breathlessness Self Care

Depending on the cause of breathlessness there are some things that you can do at home to alleviate symptoms, such as quitting smoking, avoiding asthma triggers and allergens, using relaxation techniques to minimise anxiety and losing weight. 

If your breathlessness is obviously caused by a viral infection, like bronchitis or a cold, staying well hydrated makes it easier for your lungs to expel the mucus that is causing your shortness of breath.

Making sure rooms are well ventilated can help alleviate symptoms, as can using a small fan to blow cool air into the face.

See a Doctor If:

If you are feeling an ongoing or long term shortness of breath it is advised that you see a doctor for a proper diagnosis, especially if you have any of the following additional symptoms:

  • You have fever, chills and a cough
  • You have swollen feet or ankles
  • You are more short of breath when lying down
  • You feel winded after exercise but the sensation doesn’t go away after half an hour
  • You have blue lips or fingertips
  • You are nauseated
  • You wheeze when you breathe
  • You make a strange, high pitched sound (known as a stridor) when you breathe
  • Breathing takes a lot of effort
  • Your shortness of breath is getting worse
  • You have a medical history of lung diseases or problems

You should call 000 and seek medical attention immediately if you have any of the following symptoms:

  • You faint or feel like you might lose consciousness
  • You have trouble speaking in full sentences
  • You have pains in your chest, arm or jaw

If you feel short of breath and don’t want to waste it on the phone trying to make a doctor’s appointment, MyHealth1st can help. The MyHealth1st booking portal is the fastest and easiest way to find and book an appointment with a medical professional online .


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