In very simple terms, Dyspnea is a feeling of suffocation, but it is not just a simple suffocation. It can be a severe issue and can come up suddenly.
Dyspnea is a feeling of not being able to breathe or get air to breathe normally. It is the shortness of breath and involves tightening of the chest. When people are involved in very heavy exercises or live in extremities of temperature like too hot, humid or cold or live in high altitudes, this problem can occur to them. In these situations, it might be normal to breathe fast and heavy but not for everyone. For some people, it might just be a sign that something else is wrong. This problem can suddenly appear in someone's body or it can be a chronic issue as well.
People who suffer from dyspnea show the following symptoms:
- They feel that they are unable to get enough air in their lungs which is like feeling suffocated.
- They go breathless when dyspnea shows up.
- They also feel "hungry" for air.
- They feel tightening feeling in the chest.
- Problems like rashes and cough can also accompany the feeling of dyspnea.
Those people who suffer from chronic dyspnea find it difficult to breathe even in simple tasks like getting up from the bed and walking to the other room. Some people have also reported breathlessness even while just getting up from sitting position. There are also certain positions in which people feel breathless, for example, lying low also causes breathlessness in people who suffer from some lung or a heart disease.
Along with the mentioned symptoms of dyspnea, if the person is feeling any of the following symptoms as well, then consulting the doctor is highly suggested:
- Presence of swelling in either ankles or feet or both.
- Difficulties in breathing when lying flat.
- Chills, a fever accompanied by a cough.
- Gradual deteriorating of the ability to breathe properly than before.
Most of the time, those people who have some lung or a heart disease face this problem of dyspnea. This is because it is the responsibility of the heart and lungs to supply the oxygen to the tissues of the body and remove carbon dioxide. If something is wrong with the heart or lung, then this process is affected which leads to problems in breathing. Other causes can be varied and also depends on whether the dyspnea is acute (sudden) or chronic (ongoing). Following are the causes of acute dyspnea:
- Poisoning because of carbon monoxide. There are various sources of carbon monoxide, even inside the home. Some of them are clothes dryers, fireplaces, heaters, boilers, stoves, ovens, cars, generators etc.
- Presence of excess amounts of fluid near the heart. This condition, also called as cardiac tamponade puts so much pressure on the heart that the heart is unable to fill properly. This ultimately leads to low blood pressure or a sudden drop in the blood pressure.
- Heart attack or its failure. This could be because of many other reasons.
- Low levels of blood pressure. This is also known as hypotension.
- Pulmonary infections like pneumonia.
- Clotting in the artery of the lung (called a pulmonary embolism), or presence of blockage anywhere in the breathing passage. This condition is also known as 'upper airway obstruction'.
- Collapsed lung (known by the name of pneumothorax). This is caused when the air comes in between the lungs and the wall of the chest. It can be caused by certain lung disease, medical surgery or some chest related injury.
The condition of dyspnea is said to be chronic when it lasts for at least few weeks. Some of the causes of chronic dyspnea can be the same as acute dyspnea but there could be some different causes as well:
- Heart dysfunction
- Chronic obstructive pulmonary diseases (example chronic bronchitis)
There are also organ-specific diseases which can lead to dyspnea. For example, the following are some of the lung related diseases which can cause dyspnea:
- Lung cancer
- Tuberculosis – It is an infectious lung disease which is transferable through sneezing and coughing.
- Sarcoidosis- a collection of inflammatory cells in the lungs in this example.
- Pleurisy- inflammation of those tissues which covers the cavity of lungs and chest
- Croup – upper airway infection which causes a specific type of barking cough and blocks normal breathing.
Heart-related diseases like pericarditis, arrhythmias or cardiomyopathy and other general issues like deficiency of haemoglobin (anaemia), broken ribs, anxiety disorders can also cause dyspnea. Women who are pregnant have also reported this issue. It has also been observed that panic attacks can also cause dyspnea. Therefore, it is important to maintain peace and calm so that panic attacks can be avoided.
To detect the problem of dyspnea, the doctor needs to evaluate the condition of the lungs very carefully and thoroughly. For this, they use a testing with the name of spirometry. This testing is used to check the functioning of the lungs. This is done by checking how much, and how fast the patient can blow the air in and out. The spirometry test is also used to find out if the person has asthma or COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease).
Doctors might also advise a test called pulse oximetry. In this test, a device is used which is attached to the finger of the patient. It can also be clipped with the earlobe. That device measures the amount of oxygen in the blood. But before doing any other test, chances are that the doctor will ask for a blood test to measure the blood count. It will help them in identifying whether the person has anaemia. Anaemia is caused when the body is unable to produce the required number of red blood cells. Blood tests are also good to identify if there are any infections in the body. Also, there are certain tests which can check the presence of a blood clot or fluid in the lungs.
CT scan (computerized tomography scan) can help to know if the person is down with pneumonia or if there is a clot in the lungs. CT scan can show a better picture of the lungs because CT scan machine uses X-rays from multiple directions so that complete image can be formed.
If the doctor suspects that the issue of dyspnea could be related to some condition in the heart, then he might advise the patient to go for an electrocardiogram or ECG. It is used to measure the heartbeats or electrical signals that the heart generates. It helps in finding out whether the person is having a heart attack or what is their pulse rate and then the doctor can measure it as per the normal rate and advise a treatment to the patient (in case the rhythm is not healthy or as expected).
The causes of dyspnea are so varied that there is no specific prevention technique that can help people in avoiding this problem. There are steps that any individual can take to develop their overall health which will help them in keeping themselves away from dyspnea. Those steps are as below:
- First and foremost, it is important to quit smoking or using anything which affects the breathing system. Smoking is harmful to the health of the lungs and leaves people susceptible to numerous kinds of breathing and other diseases.
- It is not just the smokers who have a very high risk of harming themselves, but also a passive smoker gets affected. Whenever someone is smoking, people should try to maintain a physical distance from the smoker because the toxins released from the cigarette are surely very harmful and makes the lungs weak.
- Exposure to chemicals or even wood smoke should be avoided. Whenever there is a need to use chemicals (for example while cleaning), the mouth and nose should be covered. This might help just a little bit. These chemicals are neither good for the environment, nor for the humans.
- Keeping the weight within limits is always helpful, not just to avoid dyspnea but to avoid many other diseases. The lungs and heart get under pressure if the person is obese.
- Exercising is important because it strengthens the cardiovascular system as well as respiratory systems. It would be easier to exercise if the weight is less and pressure on the lungs and heart is not too much.
- If someone is planning to go to the higher altitudes or in very extreme weather conditions, they should not go without preparations. They should give themselves time to adapt to the changes and do activities as per the place they are in. For example, it is not very ideal to do heavy exercises when the altitude is too high. Generally, it is said that exerting oneself above the altitudes of 5,000 ft. is not advisable.
- If someone is already suffering from this disease and they are already using supplementary oxygen, then they should check the equipment timely to make sure that it is working properly and there is enough oxygen in it.
How this problem of dyspnea is treated completely depends on the underlying cause of the problem. Because there are so many reasons why a person might be suffering from dyspnea, the doctor needs to treat the cause and solve the issue. So, when the doctor gets the result of the tests done on the patient, they can find out the cause and prescribe a treatment accordingly. Therefore, it is important to inform about the symptoms to the doctor so that they can prescribe the right tests in the first place. As an example, people who suffer from asthma get an inhaler as a treatment when they suffer from dyspnea. If asthma patients are given bronchodilators or steroids, it helps them in treating dyspnea. If a person has an infection which is causing dyspnea, then antibiotics might help. Similarly, if dyspnea is due to the person being overweight, the doctor can prescribe a weight management plan.
Other kinds of medicines like opiates, anti-anxiety and anti-inflammatory drugs have also been helpful for people with dyspnea. If a person is down with a disease like COPD, then certain breathing techniques can improve their condition. An example of such a technique is pursed lip breathing.
Also, there are certain rehabilitation programs which are specifically designed for people with dyspnea. It has been observed that such kind of programs are helpful for people to even though the main reason for dyspnea in them remains there.
Sometimes, the body might have low levels of oxygen present in the blood. In such cases, if they are given a supplementary source of oxygen, it helps the patients. But it does not imply that anyone with dyspnea will feel better if more oxygen is supplied to them or in other words, it does not mean that whoever has dyspnea will have low levels of oxygen in their blood. It has also been found that sometimes a mild blow of cool air on the face of the dyspnea patient also helps them in their symptoms.
The complications of this problem are that the person feels it extremely hard to breathe and can result in choking. It needs to be treated immediately as it can result in loss of breath. For example, people with asthma should always keep an inhaler with them in emergency situations. Also, if people are exercising and they are finding that the shortness of breath is coming up, they should stop and get back to normal. Pushing the boundaries might not be always safe. If the symptoms are seen, consulting a doctor is advised so that the doctor can guide the action plan.
Myth #1: Sometimes people believe that shortness of breath is always asthma, but that is not the case. More knowledge about Dyspnea will help them in understanding that asthma is just one of the causes of this problem.
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