What Does Shortness of Breath Mean for My Asthma?

Shortness of Breath: A Common Asthma Symptom

Young woman coughing
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Shortness of breath is one of the classic asthma symptoms people experience before being diagnosed with asthma or when their asthma is poorly controlled. Other asthma symptoms in addition to shortness of breath include:

Shortness of breath refers to feeling breathless or having difficulty breathing. Your doctor may refer to shortness of breath using the medical term dyspnea.

There is no strict medical definition for shortness of breath. Patients will often describe this trouble breathing differently. You may hear shortness of breath described as:

  • "Being air hungry"
  • "Unable to catch my breath"
  • "Gasping for breath"
  • "Suffocation" or "smothering"
  • "Unable to complete usual activities"

Young children, and even some adults, may have difficulty in describing what shortness of breath feels like. Some adults will also describe shortness of breath as "feeling tired" or a decreased ability to do their normal activities. Young children who are not yet verbal may experience shortness of breath as feeding problems while older children may describe tiredness, fatigue, or just not be able to keep up with other kids their age.

Shortness Of Breath-Learn More

    Shortness Of Breath-What It Means

    Like all the other common symptoms, you may experience shortness of breath alone or, more likely, in combination with the other asthma symptoms.

    If you have not been diagnosed with asthma previously, make sure you mention this symptom to your doctor because a number of other diseases such as heart disease, COPD, and pulmonary embolism can cause shortness of breath.

    Consider using the symptom checker to see what may be causing your shortness of breath but other conditions your doctor will consider include:

    • Other lung diseases such as emphysema, COPD, or pneumonia
    • Atherosclerotic heart disease
    • Panic attacks
    • Obesity
    • Deconditioning
    • High altitude
    • Anemia or low blood count
    • Blood clot
    • Stress


    If you have not been diagnosed with asthma, you need to see a doctor to make sure it is not one of the other serious causes of shortness of breath. Your doctor will likely ask you a series of questions trying to narrow down what may be causing your symptoms and may order a number of tests to rule out a more serious cause of your shortness of breath. The tests may include:

    • Pulse oximetry
    • Peak flow
    • Complete blood count (CBC)- blood test to check for anemia
    • Chest x-ray
    • Spirometry
    • Complete pulmonary function testing
    • Cat scan
    • Electrocardiogram (ECG)
    • Echocardiogram
    • Stress test- to look for possible coronary artery disease or blockages in the heart

    If you already have an asthma diagnosis, shortness of breath may signal poor control or worsening symptoms that could escalate into an asthma attack if you do not follow your asthma action plan.

    If the shortness of breath is due to your asthma, it is not likely to get better without treatment so keeping a rescue inhaler like albuterol with you at all times and using it soon after developing symptoms is very important.

    Can Shortness of Breath Be Treated

    Yes, but the treatment will depend on the underlying cause. If your oxygen levels are low then you will need oxygen. Your doctor may empirically try a short acting beta agonist or SABA to see if your symptoms improve. Additionally, your doctor may provide other treatments such as antibiotics if indicated.

    Do I Need To Call A Doctor?

    If your shortness of breath comes on suddenly or you are experiencing chest pain, you should call 911.

    Call your doctor for shortness of breath is occurring more frequently or if you are experiencing any other classic asthma symptoms such as:

    * Wheezing

    * Chest tightness

    * Cough

    Breathing Exercises To Improve Shortness of Breath

    What Is Your Biggest Asthma Problem?

    We want to help you get control of your asthma. I want to hear about your biggest asthma problem so that we can try to help you develop a solution or better understand how to help.
 You are probably not the only one with the problem. Take a few minutes describing your problem so we can develop a solution together.


    American College of Chest Physicians. Patient Guide. Accessed June 21, 2015. Shortness of Breath.

    National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. Accessed: June 5, 2009. Expert Panel Report 3 (EPR3): Guidelines for the Diagnosis and Management of Asthma

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