Should I Go to the ER for Shortness of Breath?

When to Go to the ER

Apr 1, 2024


For many people, a sudden shortness of breath or difficulty breathing can be an incredibly distressing experience. Tightness in the chest, nausea, tunnel vision, or the increased heart rate that can accompany shortness of breath episodes can increase anxiety and raise questions as to whether something serious is going on. So, naturally, someone experiencing one of these symptoms may ask, “Should I go to the ER for shortness of breath?”

Understanding some of the common causes of shortness of breath, and associated risk factors — such as age, lifestyle, and genetics — as well as knowing how to make an action plan, can help you determine whether professional medical assistance might be necessary.

What is the most common cause of shortness of breath?

In general terms, shortness of breath is the result of a condition or conditions affecting the heart, lungs, or upper respiratory system. That said, the most common cause of shortness of breath greatly depends on the age, lifestyle, and genetic predispositions of the person who is experiencing it.

Shortness of breath risk factors

Shortness of breath affects different segments of the population for different reasons. So to better understand the potential root causes of shortness of breath, it helps to get to know the associated risk factors.

  • Age. According to the peer-reviewed medical journal, Journal of Pain and Symptom Management, shortness of breath, or breathlessness, tends to affect older populations more than younger populations. Shortness of breath is nearly twice as prevalent in people aged 65 and above as it is for ages 50 to 64 — and three times as prevalent compared to people under 40.
  • Lifestyle. Lifestyle can also greatly influence how often and severely someone experiences shortness of breath. Lifestyle factors like obesity, diet, lack of exercise, and tobacco use can increase the chances of developing both acute and chronic shortness of breath symptoms.
  • Genetic factors. Sometimes a person can experience shortness of breath for reasons beyond their control. The National Library of Medicine concluded that parents who experienced breathlessness unrelated to “asthma, lung function, obesity, smoking, [and] depression,” are more likely to have children who develop breathlessness during their lives.

Acute vs chronic shortness of breath

Most of the time, shortness of breath can be categorized into two types of conditions — acute and chronic. Each has distinct causes, symptoms, and treatments.

Acute dyspnea (shortness of breath)

Acute shortness of breath (also known as acute dyspnea) can occur quickly, and usually only lasts a few hours or, at most, a day or two. Acute dyspnea can be aggravated by one or more of the following:

  • Allergies. Those particularly prone to seasonal allergies, pet dander, or other airborne allergens, may experience frequent, short-term bouts of shortness of breath. Even if you didn’t experience such allergies as a child, some people can develop allergies later in life, all the way up to their fifties or sixties.
  • Anxiety. Stress, anxiety, or panic attacks can cause rapid heart rate increases, which in turn can lead to shortness of breath. If you can trace the shortness of breath episode to a stressful or traumatic experience, anxiety may be the cause.
  • Exercise. Whether you’re beginning a new exercise regimen — especially one that heavily features cardiovascular fitness — or are returning to exercise after a long period of inactivity, chances are you’ll experience breathing problems and nausea during the first few sessions. 
  • Illness. Diseases affecting the respiratory system, including the flu or common cold, bronchitis, or environment-borne illnesses that attack the lungs, can harbor systems like difficulty breathing and may require medical attention if symptoms do not subside after several days.

Read more: When to go to the ER for bronchitis

Treatments for shortness of breath, at least for acute shortness of breath, are straightforward in most cases. For example, for seasonal allergies or illness sufferers, prescription or over-the-counter medications and annual vaccinations can help the body fight off infections and other immune system responses that affect breathing.

Additionally, environmental tools like air purifiers and other sanitary measures around the home and office can reduce the number of airborne germs and allergens. For shortness of breath brought on by anxiety and stress, prescribed medications may still offer some relief. Other solutions include controlled breathing and visualization exercises.

Chronic dyspnea

Chronic dyspnea, or chronic shortness of breath, lasts for several weeks or longer, or returns frequently over the course of a lifetime. For example, if you’re experiencing frequent chest pain and shortness of breath together, especially at night, you may have a chronic condition that requires medical attention.

Chronic shortness of breath is often, but not always, caused by the following conditions:

  • Asthma. Asthma is a chronic disease that affects the lungs. It can narrow and inflame the breathing passageways, resulting in wheezing, chest tightness, productive coughing, and yes, shortness of breath (Continue reading: how to prevent asthma attacks).
  • Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). Roughly 16 million Americans suffer from COPD, a condition referring to a group of diseases (including emphysema and chronic bronchitis) that block airflow in the respiratory system. 
  • Heart failure. Congestive heart failure is one of the leading causes of shortness of breath, and can often be mistaken for something else, especially at earlier stages. Early symptoms can include chronic fatigue, heart palpitations, and shortness of breath.

Chronic shortness of breath treatment may not be easily identified right away and may require extensive observation from a trained medical professional before the cause can be properly diagnosed. However, even chronic shortness of breath sufferers, as with an asthma attack, may require immediate medical attention.

Read More: How do you treat an emergency asthma attack?

When should I be concerned about shortness of breath?

For most healthy people under 40 who have no genetic risk factors or a family history of breathlessness, infrequent, temporary shortness of breath is likely no cause for concern. As mentioned before, shortness of breath can often be attributed to environmental factors, seasonal allergies, or even the common cold.

If you answer “yes” to one or more of the following statements below, your shortness of breath may be something to worry about:

  1. I am 65 years old or older.
  2. I have a history of tobacco use.
  3. I am medically obese.
  4. I have a family history of difficulty breathing.
  5. I find it hard to catch my breath for hours, even days after mild exercise.
  6. I often wake up with chest pain in the middle of the night.
  7. I experience frequent bouts of coughing or wheezing, even when I’m not ill.
  8. I often feel anxious or depressed for several hours or days at a time.

What to do when you can’t breathe

While it’s true that some of the causes of shortness of breath are preventable, or at the very least manageable, breathlessness can still occur at unexpected moments. In these situations, it’s important to have a relief plan in place.

  1. Stay calm. Easier said than done, especially if shortness of breath is a relatively new experience. However, unchecked stress during a breathing episode can only make the situation worse. Trust that most of the time, the breathlessness will pass.
  2. Sit down. Sitting in a slightly reclined position is optimal for opening the airways and protecting the body in the event of loss of consciousness. 
  3. Breath small and slow. Breathing techniques like “pursed lips breathing” are designed to counter the sudden gasps for air that lead to fatigue, dizziness, and nausea. Try to slow the breathing in small doses. Count to two for each inhale and exhale.

What does the ER do for shortness of breath?

If none of the above techniques can gradually ease your shortness of breath symptoms, you might consider visiting the ER as your next option. Here’s what you can expect when you visit the ER for shortness of breath:

  1. Oxygen therapy. The first step most emergency room professionals will take is to ensure your body has an unimpeded source of oxygen, either through nasal tubes, the trachea, or an oxygen mask.
  2. Physical exam. The medical team will perform a brief physical exam by listening to the heart and lungs, testing blood pressure, and (if needed) palpating potential trouble areas like the throat and nose for obstructions.
  3. Imaging. If further answers are needed, the doctors will take images of the body like an X-ray to determine if there’s a physiological cause to the shortness of breath.

Should I go to the ER for shortness of breath? Yes. Don’t wait to visit a Complete Care ER.

If it’s been hours since you’ve been able to breathe freely, and you’re starting to wonder, “Should I go to the ER for shortness of breath?”, don’t hesitate to seek medical assistance. The Complete Care team is ready to treat your shortness of breath symptoms as well as discuss options that will get you back on your feet.

Our 24/7 walk-in emergency facilities are fully equipped with professional medical staff that can aid with your respiratory distress. Visit us at one of our multiple locations in Texas (Austin, Corpus Christi, Dallas/Fort Worth, East Texas, Lubbock, and San Antonio) and in Colorado Springs.

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