Oxygen therapy
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Definition: Dyspnea is commonly referred to as shortness of breath. It can be defined as air hunger, or the sensation of having the urge to breathe, that is caused by lack of oxygen in the bloodstream. Dyspnea is the most common symptom of COPD.


Dyspnea is caused by a number of factors including:

  • Disturbances of the heart, including heart attack, congestive heart failure and arrhythmias
  • Disturbances of the lungs, including COPD, pulmonary hypertension and pneumonia
  • Inhalation of a foreign object
  • Allergies
  • Obesity
  • Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD)
  • Trauma to the chest wall
  • Panic attacks

Signs and Symptoms

Signs and symptoms of dyspnea include:

  • Clearly audible, labored breathing
  • An anxious, distressed facial expression
  • Flaring nostrils
  • Protrusion of the abdomen and/or chest
  • Gasping
  • Cyanosis


Dyspnea does not always indicate the presence of an abnormal condition. At times, it is completely normal, such as during strenuous exercise. Then, some people with advanced lung disease may never experience the sensation of shortness of breath. When dyspnea occurs, however, it is usually a warning sign that significant disease does exist, so it is important that you seek medical attention immediately if dyspnea persists.

When To Call a Healthcare Professional

Dyspnea should never be taken lightly as it could be a sign of a true, medical emergency.

It is important that you call 911 immediately if shortness of breath comes on suddenly, persists longer than a few minutes or if someone completely stops breathing.

Visit About.com's Health Topics A-Z for more information about dyspnea.


A.D.A.M. Breathing Difficulty. http://adam.about.net/encyclopedia/Breathing-difficulty.htm

Taber's Cyclopedic Medical Dictionary. Edition 18. 1997.

Pronunciation: disp-ne-a

Also Known As: dyspnea, air hunger, difficulty breathing, labored breathing

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