What is Breathlessness?
Breathlessness is the need to breathe air in and out of the lungs quickly. This is normal during strenuous exercise, as the lungs must work harder to supply the muscles with extra oxygen. When breathlessness occurs at other times, the difficulty in breathing is likely to be due to a disorder. The problem may be an obstruction of normal airflow through the lungs by the blood, or damage to the breathing center at the base of the brain.
Breathlessness is a common symptom of asthma, along with wheezing and a recurrent cough. Allergies, stress, odors, cold air, exercise and many other factors can trigger an asthma attack.
The blood carries oxygen to all the cells in the body. Anemia and other blood disorders, such as leukemia, can cause breathlessness because the blood becomes less efficient at absorbing oxygen and transporting it around the body.
Increasingly difficult and painful breathing usually accompanied by chronic coughing and perhaps spitting up blood-flecked phlegm are possible signs of lung cancer, especially amongst smokers.
A collapsed lung (pneumothorax) occurs when air gets into the space separating the two layers that surround the lung (pleura). A sharp pain in the chest, followed by severe shortness of breath and pain when inhaling, suggest a collapsed lung. This may follow an injury to the chest, which pushes a rib down into a lung. However, it can happen spontaneously due to weakness in the pleura.
Here, the lungs’ tiny air sacs (alveoli) break down to form larger spaces so that the area of membrane available for oxygen transfer is reduced. Emphysema cannot be cured, but there are a number of treatments that can help relieve the symptoms. Smoking frequently causes emphysema.
Shortness of breath can result if the hear t is unable to pump enough blood to supply the oxygen needed by the tissues. If this is accompanied by severe chest pain, sweating and nausea, a heart attack may be taking place. Waking at night with shortness of breath may be a sign of hear t failure and can usually be eased by sleeping in a more upright position.
Anxiety, panic attacks, or stress can result in abnormal deep or rapid breathing (hyperventilation) and a feeling of suffocation.
Excess Weight & Lack of Fitness
Breathlessness during minimal exertion is usually due to having to carry excessive weight and to lack of fitness. Most obese people conform to this pattern of symptoms.
Pleurisy and pleural effusion
Pleurisy is irritation and inflammation of the pleura, the double-layered membrane surrounding the lungs. It can be caused by an infection, such as bronchitis, or rarely, by cancer. Pleural effusion is seepage of fluid into the space between the membranes. Pleurisy makes breathing painful. The pain is characteristically sharp and occurs when a person breathes in. A pleural effusion compresses the lung, and makes it less efficient because it can no longer expand fully.
Difficult or painful breathing, accompanied by fever and coughing up thick greenish or rusty colored phlegm suggest possible pneumonia.
Upper Respiratory Infections
Any infection in the air passages behind the nose and throat leading down into the windpipe (trachea) can make breathing difficult. The infection causes inflammation of the lining of these upper airways, leading to swelling and increased production of mucus. Both these effects can obstruct the flow of air. In young children the windpipe is narrower so that swelling of the lining may need emergency treatment to prevent it from completely blocking the airway.
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