What Is Dyspnea? - Definition, Causes & Treatment

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  • 0:00 Dyspnea Defined
  • 1:08 Causes of Dyspnea
  • 2:27 Treatment
  • 3:44 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Emily Smathers
Dyspnea can be a transient condition that quickly dissipates, but it can be a symptom of a more serious disease. Today we will learn what dyspnea is as well as its causes and treatment.

Dyspnea Defined

Have you ever gone for a run and been out of breath during or afterward? If you ran track in school you may have run sprints and ran so hard that maybe your side hurt. This is dyspnea but is generally reversible as it only lasts a few minutes in a healthy individual. This type of dyspnea is expected when you run or physically exert yourself.

Dyspnea is difficult or labored breathing, and it's commonly called shortness of breath. Dyspnea or being short of breath is not a disease nor is it serious when it only lasts a few minutes. It is experienced and described differently by patients, depending on the cause. For example, an asthmatic would experience dyspnea via wheezing or coughing but a person with cardiac issues would experience dyspnea more in the inability to breathe.

Dyspnea is serious when it starts suddenly when you are not working hard or lasts longer than a few minutes. At this point, dyspnea is a sign of serious disease of the lungs or heart. A sudden onset of dyspnea should not be ignored. If you experience it, you should seek medical attention.

Causes of Dyspnea

While dyspnea is common, it has various causes. The most common reasons for dyspnea are asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, myocardial ischemia, pneumonia and physical deconditioning. Some of the less common reasons for dyspnea are congestive heart failure or foreign body aspiration.

Being short of breath after running and being short of breath due to being out of good physical condition are common and generally do not require intervention. It is a sign of physical deconditioning, and the body can be improved with exercise.

An acute type of dyspnea, like pulmonary embolism, is quite dangerous and occurs quickly. A pulmonary embolism is a sudden blockage of an artery in the lung from a clot. Typically the clots come from other areas of the body but lodge in the lung. One of the signs that there is a problem is dyspnea or shortness of breath. At this point it is critical to get medical attention.

Medical diseases, like myocardial infarction, cause dyspnea thru sudden chest pain, decreasing the ability to breath. Allergic reactions can cause dyspnea thru inflaming the airways, decreasing the ability for air to come in or out of the body. Fortunately there are treatments to combat these medical conditions.


As the causes of dyspnea relate to more serious medical conditions, treatment is diverse and relate to the medical condition. For example, dyspnea is a symptom of asthma. To treat asthma, different inhalers can be prescribed and used, which help ease the dyspnea.

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