Breathlessness is described as the uncomfortable sensation of difficulty in breathing or having shortness of breath. Also sometimes described as air hunger, it can be both distressing and frightening. Also known as Dyspnoea, breathlessness ranges from mild and temporary (acute) to serious and long-lasting (chronic), and is often accompanied by other symptoms such as chest pain, cough and fever.
Breathlessness mainly occurs because the body needs more oxygen than it is getting. Because of this, you tend to breathe faster to try and increase the oxygen-rich air flow into the lungs. From the lungs, the oxygen enters the blood stream and the heart pumps it round the body.
Causes of Breathlessness
There are four main mechanisms that can make an individual feel short of breath and they include:
- Decreased levels of oxygen in the blood stream
- Increased carbon dioxide levels in the blood stream
- Inability of the lungs to expand as normal
- Increased workload
Breathlessness can affect individuals especially when they are exercising, and sometimes it can be due to being overweight or not being very fit. At other times it can come suddenly due to an underlying medical condition.
Acute breathlessness can be caused by:
- Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)
- Heart disease
- Pulmonary embolism
- Certain types of medication
Chronic breathlessness can be caused by:
- Heart failure
- Heart rhythm problems
Symptoms of Breathlessness
Due to the large number of the possible causes of breathlessness, it can manifest in a variety of symptoms. However, the most common symptom is the cough.
Other symptoms include:
- Cyanosis, which is the blue discoloration of the fingers, mouth or toes due to an increase in the concentration of deoxygenated blood
- Chest pain
- Haemoptysis, described as coughing up of blood
- Abnormal sputum
- Altered breathing patterns
If one of your symptoms of breathlessness is fever, it could be pneumonia, which is the infection of the lungs.
Diagnosis of Breathlessness
Diagnosis of breathlessness will include your doctor asking you several questions so as to determine the likely cause of your breathing difficulties. You will also be asked for your medical history and if there are any medications that you may be taking at that time.
The doctor will also perform a physical examination to check the general colour of the skin on your fingers, toes and mouth, demeanour, and breathing pattern. Your airway and lungs will also be examined.
Your doctor may then order some tests which include:
- Pulmonary function tests
- Full blood picture to look at the number of cells and presence of any infection
- Pulse oximetry to measure oxygen saturation
- Cardiac investigations
- Imaging tests such as CT, MRI or perfusion/ventilation scanning
- Pleural/lung biopsy
Treatment of Breathlessness
The first treatment for breathlessness is oxygen. Depending on the cause of your breathlessness, you will likely receive several different medications for treating your breathing difficulty.
The general treatments that are used for treating breathlessness include:
- Oxygen to help in restoring the normal levels of oxygen in the blood
- Medication to slow down your breathing
- Anti-anxiety drugs
- Medication to open the airways
At King’s College Hospital Dubai, we focus on offering an exemplary service from initial consultation through to the final diagnosis and treatment and beyond. Our team of expert doctors and nurses are here to offer tailored management and treatment of your condition, and to answer any questions that you might have throughout your time with us. Whatever you need us for, we’re only a phone-call away.
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