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What causes difficulty breathing?

The symptoms of many conditions include difficulty breathing, which can be mild or severe.

A person who is having difficulty breathing feels short of breath, has trouble inhaling or exhaling, or feels as though they cannot get enough oxygen.

Very often, people experience trouble breathing after exercising or when they feel anxious. In some cases, breathing difficulties can signal a medical condition, so it is essential to work out the cause.

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In this article, we look at the possible reasons why people might experience difficulty breathing. We also cover the diagnosis, treatment, and prevention of this symptom.

Colds or flu

Woman in bed with the flu with difficulty breathing
Inflamed airways and a stuffy nose can make breathing more difficult.

People with a common cold or the flu may have difficulty breathing. These illnesses cause the following symptoms, which can make breathing more difficult:

When a cold, flu, or chest infection is the cause of breathing difficulties, the symptoms should clear up when the illness resolves. Learn how to ease the symptoms of a cold here.


Anxiety can cause physical symptoms, including shortness of breath or breathing difficulties. A person’s breath is likely to return to normal once their anxiety eases.

Other symptoms of anxiety include:

  • feeling nervous or on edge
  • raised heart rate
  • a sense of doom
  • fatigue
  • difficulty concentrating
  • digestive problems

People may sometimes experience extreme anxiety or panic attacks that resemble a heart attack. Other symptoms of a panic attack can include:

  • a raised or pounding heartbeat
  • a feeling of choking
  • sweating
  • chest pain
  • numbness or tingling
  • chills or heat sensations

Learn about the differences between a panic attack and a heart attack here.


Asthma is a chronic disease that causes the airways leading to the lungs to become inflamed.

As with other chronic conditions, a person’s asthma will flare from time to time, usually as a result of exposure to a trigger. Triggers can vary between people but could include exercise, smoke, or particular allergens.

Common asthma symptoms include:

  • wheezing
  • chronic coughing
  • tightness in the chest
  • difficulty sleeping due to coughing or wheezing


Choking occurs when an object becomes lodged in a person’s throat. The object could be a larger piece of food, a toy, or another nonedible item that a child may typically put in their mouth.

Choking can be life-threatening if the object remains in the person’s mouth. However, if the removal of the object is rapid, a person will be able to resume normal breathing relatively quickly.

Common symptoms of choking include:

  • gagging following the initial inhalation of the object
  • coughing
  • wheezing
  • a panicked look and frantic gesturing toward the throat

If the object entirely blocks the throat, the person will be unable to breathe, which is a medical emergency.

Signs that the object is preventing breathing include:

  • passing out
  • lips turning blue
  • lack of breathing
  • inability to speak

Breathing difficulty after eating

Several health conditions could potentially cause a person to have trouble breathing after eating.

For example, according to the COPD Foundation, shortness of breath after eating a more substantial meal is common for people with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) because the food can push against the diaphragm and make it difficult to breathe in deeply.

Acid reflux may also cause shortness of breath. It can have this effect because stomach acid works its way up the esophagus and irritates the lining, which may cause inspiratory breathing problems. Acid reflux may also cause a chronic cough.

Learn more about shortness of breath after eating here.

Lack of exercise or obesity

Man lazing on the sofa
A person who does not exercise regularly may experience breathing difficulties.

A person who has obesity or does not exercise regularly may experience periods during which they have difficulty breathing.

Short periods of exertion can cause a person to feel out of breath.

If weight or a lack of exercise is the cause of breathing difficulty, starting an exercise regimen and following a healthful diet can significantly contribute to reducing or eliminating the problem.


COPD is a term that describes several lung disorders, including chronic asthma, emphysema, and chronic bronchitis. COPD symptoms may worsen at night due to changes in the way that a person breathes while sleeping.

COPD can cause a range of symptoms, such as:

  • shortness of breath
  • chest pain
  • coughing
  • fatigue, as a result of reduced oxygen in the blood


According to the American Lung Association, emphysema is one of the diseases under the COPD umbrella.

Emphysema thins and destroys the alveoli, or air sacs, in the lungs. The inhalation of cigarette smoke is a leading cause of this condition.

The primary symptoms of emphysema include:

  • coughing
  • increased phlegm
  • shortness of breath during activities


Anaphylaxis is a severe allergic reaction. It is a life-threatening condition that requires immediate medical attention. Anaphylaxis progresses quickly, but it has some early warning signs and symptoms.

These may include:

  • hives
  • tightness in the throat
  • trouble breathing
  • a hoarse voice
  • vomiting
  • abdominal pain
  • cardiac arrest
  • dizziness
  • rapid heartbeat
  • nausea
  • low blood pressure
  • a sense of doom


As pregnancy progresses, the fetus becomes bigger and can start to push on surrounding organs and muscles. These include the diaphragm, which is a muscle directly below the lungs that helps a person take deep breaths.

If the uterus pushes against the diaphragm, this can make it more difficult for the person to take deep breaths.

In addition to the expanding uterus, people may experience difficulty breathing during pregnancy due to progesterone, a hormone that the body produces in larger quantities during pregnancy. Progesterone can make someone feel as though they cannot take a deep breath.

If other symptoms arise, pregnancy is unlikely to be the cause of breathing issues, and it is best to see a doctor to determine the cause.

Heart attack

According to the American Heart Association, difficulty breathing is one of the common warning signs of a heart attack. Therefore, anyone experiencing this symptom should pay attention to any other symptoms that occur.

If a person experiences the following symptoms, they should get medical attention immediately:

  • chest discomfort
  • trouble breathing
  • discomfort in the back, jaw, neck, stomach, or one or both arms
  • lightheadedness
  • cold sweats
  • nausea


Doctor looking at a chest X-Ray
A doctor may order a chest X-ray to determine the cause of a person’s breathing difficulties.

There are many possible causes of breathing difficulties. Whenever a person has trouble breathing for unknown reasons, they should see their doctor.

At an appointment, the doctor will ask about the other symptoms that a person is experiencing. In some cases, this may be enough for the doctor to determine the cause.

In other cases, a doctor may want to run tests to help diagnose the problem. These tests may include:

  • allergy tests
  • chest X-rays
  • lung tests
  • CT scans
  • spirometry and methacholine challenge tests
  • arterial blood gas analysis

Who is at risk?

Risk factors vary greatly depending on the cause of the breathing problem.

For example, children are more at risk of choking than adults, while smokers have a higher likelihood of developing emphysema. People with asthma are more at risk of having breathing trouble following exercise or exposure to allergens.

Keeping active and eating a healthful, balanced diet can help prevent many issues with breathing that can develop over a person’s lifetime.


The cause of the breathing difficulty will determine the treatment. Some common treatments could include:

  • removal of an object in the throat, in cases of choking
  • medications
  • inhalers for asthma and other upper respiratory conditions
  • an epinephrine autoinjector (EpiPen) for anaphylaxis
  • eating smaller meals for acid reflux and COPD
  • antacids for acid reflux

In some cases, people can improve their breathing by using specific breathing exercises to increase their lung capacity. Learn about these exercises here.

When to see a doctor

A person should seek immediate medical attention if they experience difficulty breathing that causes them to feel faint or occurs alongside other symptoms of a heart attack.

Otherwise, a person with unexplained shortness of breath or other breathing problems should speak to their doctor to determine what is causing the issue.


There are many potential ways to prevent the development of breathing difficulties. Some steps to consider include:

  • taking smaller bites of food and avoiding placing loose objects in the mouth
  • avoiding smoking and breathing in secondhand smoke
  • taking allergy medications and avoiding known allergens
  • eating healthful meals and exercising regularly
  • eating smaller meals
  • taking prescribed medications for chronic conditions and avoiding triggers


There are several different causes of breathing difficulty. Anyone with concerns about this symptom should see their doctor. Some causes are chronic, such as COPD, while others are temporary, for example, the common cold.

If symptoms are severe, the person will need immediate medical attention.

A person can typically avoid having difficulty breathing by avoiding triggers and living a healthful lifestyle that includes eating well and exercising regularly.

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