Breathlessness (also known as dyspnoea) is shortness of breath, rapid breathing or having difficulty breathing.

By Wallace Health I Medically reviewed by Adrian Roberts.
Page last reviewed: October 2018 I Next review due: October 2023


Becoming breathless as a result of exercising or being unusually active is perfectly normal. However, if your breathlessness is worrying you or affecting your life, you should seek medical attention.

If you’re suddenly struggling to breathe, or have chest pain when breathing, you have acute breathlessness. Seek urgent medical attention as there might be a serious problem with your heart, lungs or airways.

If you’ve gradually become breathless, you have long-term (chronic) breathlessness, which can be a symptom of an underlying condition.

Causes of breathlessness

Acute breathlessness can be a symptom of:

  • Heart attack – symptoms include chest pain, chest tightness, shortness of breath, nausea and pain spreading through your arms, neck and back
  • Acute heart failure – your heart’s finding it difficult to pump blood around your body
  • Panic attack or anxiety
  • Pneumonia – inflammation of the lung, which can cause difficulty breathing
  • Pulmonary embolism – a blood clot which travels to the lungs, causing breathing problems
  • Obesity – being very overweight can cause breathing problems
  • Asthma - a chronic condition affecting the lungs and airways

Chronic breathlessness, including shortness of breath doing everyday activities such as walking, can be a symptom of several conditions, including:

  • Lung disease – such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), bronchiesis or lung cancer
  • Anaemia – low levels of red blood cells can result in a lack of oxygen in your blood
  • A heart condition – such as chronic heart failure, atrial fibrillation (irregular heartbeat), or supraventricular tachycardia (rapid heartbeat)
  • Arrhythmia
  • Coronary heart disease

These conditions can affect you at any age. If you’re a smoker, you’re more likely to develop lung and heart conditions. If you’re very young or very elderly, you’re at a greater risk of pneumonia and heart failure.

Talk to your doctor if you're concerned about symptoms.

Talk to your doctor if you’re concerned about symptoms

You can book an appointment with a Spire private GP today.

Getting a diagnosis for breathlessness

If you’ve had breathing problems for some time, make an appointment to see your GP. Your GP will ask about:

  • Your shortness of breath, including when it started and how breathlessness is affecting your life
  • Any other symptoms, including a cough, unintentional weight loss, fever and chest pain
  • Your medical history
  • Any medication you’re taking

Your GP will also check your blood pressure and examine your heart and lungs. They may also do blood tests to check for anaemia, an underactive thyroid (hypothyroidism) or heart failure.

Your GP may refer you for further investigations, such as a chest X-ray or lung function tests. In some cases, your GP may refer you to a consultant in respiratory or heart medicine.

Seek immediate medical attention if you’re suddenly struggling to breathe or have chest pain when breathing.

Treatments for breathlessness

You can help improve your breathing and reduce the risk of further breathing problems and shortness of breath by:

  • Losing any excess weight
  • Stopping smoking
  • Taking regular exercise

Breathlessness can usually be effectively treated with lifestyle changes, medication or, sometimes, surgery.

Your treatment will depend on the underlying cause of your breathing problems. Your doctor will discuss your treatment options with you and, after considering your health and preferences, decide which is best.