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What Does Dyspnea Mean?

Dyspnea is a medical term used to describe the shortness of breath, or the inability to take in sufficient air into the lungs.

Dyspnea can be temporary and transient, like when it results from intense exercise of high altitudes. However, it can also be a persistent symptom of a chronic medical condition, such as low blood pressure, sudden heart failure, or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).

Safeopedia Explains Dyspnea

Dyspnea is a very unpleasant and frightful experience. A person experiencing it can feel suffocated, struggle to intake sufficient air, and feel an intense tightening in the chest.

Pathophysiology of Dyspnea

The pathophysiology of dyspnea is not fully understood because there are no specialized dyspnea receptors, as would be the case with other types of noxious stimuli. It is thought that the discomfort is the result of a complex interaction between chemoreceptor stimulation, mechanical abnormalities in breathing, and the central nervous system's perception of those abnormalities.

Symptoms of Dyspnea

Dyspnea is characterized by labored breathing that may last for a minute or two after vigorous activity. In mild cases, the person may feel that they are not getting enough air into their lungs, but in severe cases it may feel like suffocation.

Symptoms of dyspnea include:

  • Shortness of breath
  • Inability to take deep breaths
  • Tightness in the chest
  • Feeling suffocated

Causes of Dyspnea

Short-term dyspnea is mostly triggered by strenuous activity like exercise or lifting heavy loads. The body may demand more oxygen to meet the demands of these activities, requiring the person to stop and catch their breath or even take a rest. This type of dyspnea usually resolves on its own with little to no intervention.

Various health conditions can also cause short-term dyspnea, including:

The health conditions that cause chronic dyspnea include:

  • Heart disease
  • Pulmonary hypertension
  • Interstitial lung disease
  • Pleural effusion
  • Chronic COPD (including emphysema and chronic bronchitis)
  • Lung cancer

Diagnosis and Treatment of Dyspnea

Dyspnea caused by heavy work will resolve on its own with rest and deep breathing exercises. However, if there is an underlying medical condition causing the problem, that condition must be treated first. In the case of lung conditions, this might require the use of supplemental oxygen. If a weak heart is responsible for the dyspnea, then cardiac rehabilitation or an artificial pump may be needed.

Dyspnea is diagnosed by first assessing the airways, breathing, and circulation to see if emergency care is required. If the condition is deemed non-emergent, other tests are conducted, which may include imaging scans, lung function tests, blood tests, and pulse oximetry. Chest X-rays will reveal if there are any heart or lung complications causing the problem. CT scans can show if the patient has pneumonia, tumors, or a pulmonary embolism.


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