Shortness of Breath

For children under 12, see chart 46

Shortness of breath can be expected after strenuous exercise. Breathing should return to normal after resting. If you are short of breath at rest or after normal activities, such as getting dressed, you should consult your doctor because your symptom may be due to a serious heart or lung disorder.

  • Is breathing painful?

    • Painful
    • Not painful

      Have you been wheezing?

      • Wheezing
      • No wheezing

        How quickly did the shortness of breath start?

        • Gradually over a few days or longer

          Do you have either of the following symptoms?

          • Swollen ankles
            • Possible cause A possible cause of your symptoms is chronic heart failure.

              Medical help See your doctor within 24 hours.

          • Cough with sputum on most days
          • Neither

            Do you have, or have you ever had, regular exposure to or contact with the following?

            • Dust or fumes
              • Possible cause Your symptoms may be the result of an occupational lung disease.

                Medical help Make an appointment to see your doctor.

            • Grain crops, caged birds, or animals
              • Possible cause Your shortness of breath may be the result of an allergic reaction (see Extrinsic allergic alveolitis).

                Medical help Make an appointment to see your doctor.

            • Neither

              Do you have any of the following symptoms?

              • Faintness or fainting
                • Possible cause Anaemia is a possible cause of your symptoms.

                  Medical help See your doctor within 24 hours.

              • Paler skin than normal
                • Possible cause Anaemia is a possible cause of your symptoms.

                  Medical help See your doctor within 24 hours.

              • Undue tiredness
                • Possible cause Anaemia is a possible cause of your symptoms.

                  Medical help See your doctor within 24 hours.

              • None of the above
                • If you cannot identify a possible cause for your shortness of breath from this chart, see your doctor within 24 hours.

        • Suddenly within the past 48 hours

          Do any of the following apply?

          • You have recently had a surgical operation
            • Possible cause It is possible that you have a blood clot in the lung (see Pulmonary embolism).

              Medical help EMERGENCY! Dial 999/112 and ask for an ambulance.

          • You have recently been immobile because of injury or illness
            • Possible cause It is possible that you have a blood clot in the lung (see Pulmonary embolism).

              Medical help EMERGENCY! Dial 999/112 and ask for an ambulance.

          • You have had a baby within the past 2 weeks
            • Possible cause It is possible that you have a blood clot in the lung (see Pulmonary embolism).

              Medical help EMERGENCY! Dial 999/112 and ask for an ambulance.

          • None of the above

            Do you have any of the following symptoms?

            • Temperature of 38°c (100.4°F) or above
              • Possible cause Your symptoms may be caused by fluid on the lungs (see Acute heart failure).

                Medical help URGENT! Phone your doctor immediately!

            • Frothy pink or white sputum
              • Possible cause Your symptoms may be the result of an occupational lung disease.

                Medical help Make an appointment to see your doctor.

            • Waking at night feeling breathless
              • Possible cause Your symptoms may be the result of an occupational lung disease.

                Medical help Make an appointment to see your doctor.

            • None of the above

              Did the shortness of breath start immediately after a stressful event?

              • Yes
                • Possible cause You may have had a panic attack brought on by stress (see Anxiety disorders).

                  Medical help URGENT! Phone your doctor immediately if this is a first attack. Otherwise, follow the advice for coping with a panic attack.

              • No
                • If you cannot identify a possible cause for your shortness of breath from this chart, see your doctor within 24 hours.

Dial 999/112 and ask for an ambulance if either you or someone you are with has one of the following:

  • Severe shortness of breath.
  • Blue-tinged lips.

While waiting for medical help, loosen any tight clothing and help the person to sit upright, well supported by pillows.

From the 2010 revision of the Complete Home Medical Guide © Dorling Kindersley Limited.

The subjects, conditions and treatments covered in this encyclopaedia are for information only and may not be covered by your insurance product should you make a claim.

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