Breathing problems: common causes to know

As the old pop song goes 'sometimes all I need is the air that I breathe and to love you'. Life may be less enjoyable without love, but you'd survive. Breathing is really essential, and any shortness of breath can affect your life.


In the UK alone, 5.4 million people suffer from asthma, which brings wheezing and breathlessness. In mild cases, you'll only get symptoms occasionally, and taking an inhaler to open your airways when you need it should be enough. If it's not, your doctor will add a low-dose steroid inhaler that needs to be taken regularly. A scary proportion of people with asthma don't take their medicine as advised, putting them at risk of life-threatening attacks. Many people also don't use their inhaler properly, so the medicine doesn't get deep into your lungs, where it's needed. Your pharmacist can check whether you're using your inhaler properly, and show you how it's done. Do see your practice nurse or doctor if you're still having symptoms once your inhaler technique is sorted, of if you still find it difficult to use properly after you've been shown.


'Bronchitis' is the medical term or inflammation of the big airways in your lungs. Symptoms include cough, shortness of breath, wheezing and bringing up sputum. 'Acute' bronchitis is caused by an infection, and often settles with antibiotics. Chronic bronchitis used to be a common medical term, but these days it's known as COPD, or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)

'Chronic' bronchitis is a long-term condition, usually down to smoking. These days it's more often called chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). If you regularly bring up sputum, have a chronic cough, wheeze or breathlessness, are over 35 and a smoker or an ex-smoker, you should be checked for COPD. Regular inhalers are the mainstay of treatment, although stopping smoking is probably the single best thing you can do for your lungs!

If you have COPD, you're more prone to bacterial chest infections, including pneumonia. This results in more mucus being produced, so increasing breathlessness, cough and increased sputum (which may be yellow or green) are common. Getting early treatment for this can prevent hospital admissions. If you're at risk of these flare-ups, your doctor should give you an emergency treatment pack. This contains antibiotics, to take at the first sign of an increase in the amount of sputum you produce or a change in its colour. If you're getting more breathless, you should start taking a course of steroid tablets you'll also be prescribed. If you have chest problems but haven't had your flu vaccine, book an appointment. You need it each year. Pneumococcal vaccine protects against a deadly form of pneumonia with a one-off injection.

Heart failure

Most, but not all, shortness of breath is due to a problem with your lungs. In heart failure, your heart isn't pumping fluid around your body as efficiently as it should. This leads to fluid building up in your lungs, with shortness of breath when you exercise or lie flat. You may also find yourself waking up gasping for breath, and ankle swelling is a common accompanying symptom. Diagnosed with a blood test and a scan of your heart, treatment with regular tablets to reduce fluid and the strain on your heart can be very effective.

Anxiety or panic attacks

Anxiety or panic attacks flood your body with adrenaline, and can set your pulse racing and your breath gasping. Other symptoms include feeling anxious, dizzy or sick, and chest pains, a choking sensation and tingling in your fingers or lips. Talking therapy to challenge the negative thought processes going on is the best long-term treatment. Anaphylaxis - a life-threatening allergic reaction - produces similar symptoms, along with wheezing, a rash and sometimes collapse. Finding the cause and avoiding it forever is crucial, so you'll need referral for specialist tests. You'll also need to carry an injection of adrenaline with you everywhere to use in emergencies.

What else could be to blame?

There are other, rarer causes of breathlessness. They include anaemia, where you're short of red blood cells. Heavy periods are the most likely cause in women before the menopause. An overactive thyroid can cause breathlessness as well as weight loss, tremor, anxiety and heat intolerance. A clot on the lung, called a pulmonary embolism, is a medical emergency - it can lead to acute shortness of breath, coughing up blood and sharp, stabbing chest pain when you breathe.

Say no to smoking - but yes to exercise!

Not smoking is important for everyone, but especially if you have lung problems. Recent studies suggest even passive smoking can increase the risk of health problems. Many people with asthma and COPD are scared of exercise, because they get breathless and they fear it will make their condition worse. In fact, regular exercise builds up your lungs and makes them stronger. With well controlled asthma, you can do as much as anyone - several Olympic athletes have asthma! With COPD, referral for pulmonary rehabilitation classes can help enormously.

Whatever the cause of your breathing problems, there is a solution - work with your medical team to breathe easy.

With thanks to 'My Weekly' magazine where this article was originally published.

Disclaimer: This article is for information only and should not be used for the diagnosis or treatment of medical conditions. Patient Platform Limited has used all reasonable care in compiling the information but make no warranty as to its accuracy. Consult a doctor or other health care professional for diagnosis and treatment of medical conditions. For details see our conditions.


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