What Does Shortness of Breath Feel Like?

Yes, it can be a sign of COVID-19...but it's also a symptom of anxiety.

Dry cough, fever, fatigue—by now, most have heard about the common symptoms of COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2). For the most part, these symptoms are pretty self-explanatory.

But another common symptom—shortness of breath—has been raising a lot of questions, including what the sensation feels like, and when it might warrant a call to your healthcare provider (or a trip to the emergency room).

What Is Shortness of Breath?

Essentially, shortness of breath—aka, dyspnea or breathlessness—is "a group of subjective sensations that suggest our respiratory system is not functioning well," Subinoy Das, MD, chief medical officer of Tivic Health Inc., told Health.

These sensations usually feel like an increased work or effort to breathe, chest tightness, air hunger, or "the feeling of not getting enough oxygen," said Dr. Das.

Causes of Shortness of Breath

Some common causes of shortness of breath vary in severity:

  • Strenuous exercise
  • Extreme temperatures
  • High altitude
  • Dust
  • Anemia
  • Asthma
  • Anxiety or panic attacks
  • Heart problems (congenital heart disease, angina, heart failure, and arrhythmias)
  • Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)

In some cases, when shortness of breath comes on quickly, it can signal emergency situations like carbon monoxide poisoning, pneumonia, or a heart attack.

Treating Shortness of Breath

There are different treatments for shortness of breath, and your treatment will depend on the cause. After talking with your healthcare provider, some general lifestyle changes you can make to manage your shortness of breath may include:

  • Change to a healthy diet
  • Include regular exercise
  • Quit smoking
  • Avoid air pollutants and known allergy triggers

You may need to see a pulmonologist (a lung specialist) if you have an underlying lung condition. You may have to take medication to help manage your symptoms. A pulmonologist may also recommend pulmonary rehabilitation, which is an exercise and education program usually done in a group setting with other people who are in a similar situation. This is meant to provide you with support as well as give you the chance to support others.

When to See Your Healthcare Provider

Because your shortness of breath may be caused by something serious, it's important to see a healthcare provider who can diagnose the cause. You'll most likely be asked about your medical history and details of your breathing difficulties, such as when it started, when it gets better or worse, and other symptoms that occur with your shortness of breath.

Some of the additional tests you may have to undergo include:

  • Pulse oximetry—measuring blood oxygen saturation
  • Blood tests, such as blood gases
  • Chest x-ray
  • Chest CT scan
  • Electrocardiogram (ECG or EKG)
  • Echocardiogram
  • Exercise test

Seek immediate medical attention if you experience unexpected or sudden shortness of breath from an activity you're doing, your expected shortness of breath doesn't improve, or you develop additional symptoms like dizziness or chest pains.

Shortness of Breath And COVID

When it comes to COVID, shortness of breath is thought to be due to the development of pneumonia, an inflammation of the lungs linked to a coronavirus infection, said Dr. Das. In this case, the shortness of breath occurs when oxygen in the lungs doesn't make its way to the blood as a result of the viral attack, added Dr. Das.

A sensation of difficulty breathing can be caused by an increase in the level of carbon dioxide in the blood or too much acid in the blood from an infection.

If you're diagnosed with COVID, shortness of breath may be a more severe symptom and can be treated in a hospital with supplemental oxygen, said Dr. Das. This increases the amount of oxygen in your blood. "In rare cases, pressurized oxygen through a mechanical ventilator is needed to force the oxygen through severely inflamed lungs into the bloodstream," added Dr. Das.

A Quick Review

Shortness of breath is the feeling you have when your breathing is not working normally. It can be caused by a variety of reasons, ranging from strenuous exercise to anxiety to heart disease. Overall, if you're worried you have shortness of breath possibly related to COVID, take a moment, and take stock of how your body is feeling and looking overall.

If you have other symptoms like dry cough, fever, and fatigue, your healthcare provider can then help you determine whether you qualify for a COVID test. However, if your shortness of breath is severe and accompanied by other symptoms like chest pain, lightheadedness, and lips turning blue, it's best to seek medical attention ASAP.

The information in this story is accurate as of press time. However, as the situation surrounding COVID-19 continues to evolve, it's possible that some data have changed since publication. While Health is trying to keep our stories as up-to-date as possible, we also encourage readers to stay informed on news and recommendations for their own communities by using the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and World Health Organization (WHO) and their local public health department as resources.

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Sources
Health.com uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. National Library of Medicine MedlinePlus. Breathing difficulty.

  2. American Lung Association. Shortness of Breath.

  3. American Lung Association. Diagnosing and Treating Shortness of Breath.

  4. American Lung Association. The Basics of Pulmonary Rehabilitation.

  5. American College of Chest Physicians. Dyspnea (Shortness of Breath).

  6. World Health Organization. Coronavirus disease (COVID-19).

  7. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. COVID-19 Vaccines & Boosters.

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