What can cause shortness of breath?

November 12, 2012

What can cause shortness of breath?

It is not simply a lack of oxygen that causes this medical condition. There are in fact four primary factors that can cause shortness of breath.

Why do we feel short of breath?

Breathing has two main roles, which are first to move air in and out of the lungs and second to love oxygen and carbon dioxide between the bloodstream and the lungs. Every time we take a breath of oxygen-rich air, the oxygen is taken by red blood cells into the bloodstream where it is burnt as fuel. As a waste product carbon dioxide is produced, which needs to be removed before it builds up. The same blood that picks up the oxygen also drops off any excess carbon dioxide. Blood required both gases to function properly, but reserves of oxygen are much higher, which is why when there is an absence of oxygen for a short time, the body continues to function. Carbon dioxide is a different matter and needs to be removed as soon as it builds up. It a common mistake to think that the desperate need to inhale when you have been holding your breath comes form the need of oxygen but it is in fact the need to expel the accumulated carbon dioxide. Therefore it’s either the lack of oxygen or the build up of carbon dioxide that will cause shortness of breath. Reasons for this to happen can be categorised into four groups:

  1. The body demanding more air

Increased demand of oxygen can cause shortness of breath and is most commonly caused by exercise, shock, heart attack or a severe infection. In these cases the only way to treat the problem is to get rid of the demand. This means stop exercising or treat the heart attack or underlying condition. Supplemental oxygen has been used but it is now thought that more oxygen than is natural (as the problem is not with airflow) can make the problem worse rather than better.

  1. Restricted airflow

Anything that causes difficulty for air to get deep into the lungs can cause shortness of breath and problems breathing. This is because it affects the efficiency with which blood is able to move oxygen and carbon dioxide in and out. Diseases can cause restricted airflow either through inflammation of the airways as occurs in asthma or through congestion as occurs with pneumonia. Injuries to the chest, head or neck can also cause shortness of breath through restricted airflow such as broken ribs, penetration wounds and paralysis. Further reasons for restricted airflow include choking, drowning and pneumothorax.

  1. Difficulty carrying oxygen in the bloodstream

When something happens to prevent oxygen from being transported by the blood from the lungs to cells of the body, it can cause shortness of breath. Two common causes of this are:

  • Carbon monoxide poisoning, which prevents the red blood cells from holding onto the oxygen

  • Anaemia, which is a red blood cell deficiency

  1. Lack of oxygen present in the air

When this is what has caused shortness of breath, there is not a lot that can be done. At high-altitudes the air can become too thin to contain adequate amounts of oxygen. Additionally, when you are in a confined space for long enough, the oxygen and carbon dioxide levels in the air will eventually be the same as the air being exhaled by the body.


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