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Diagnosing and Treating Shortness of Breath

Shortness of breath needs prompt diagnosis and management of the cause and symptoms. A medical history as well as examination can often give a good explanation but sometimes special tests are required.

What to Expect

Your doctor or other healthcare provider will ask you a series of questions such as the nature of the shortness of breath, when it gets worse and when it gets better and if you are having any additional symptoms like chest pain, dizziness, cough, or sputum (mucus or phlegm). They will listen to your heart and lungs with a stethoscope, and may order additional tests, which could include chest scan, pulmonary function, blood tests, or an echocardiogram.

How Shortness of Breath Is Diagnosed

Information about the symptoms reported by the patient or other observers is usually sufficient to diagnose shortness of breath. An examination and further tests as noted above may be required. Some patients may need more complex testing including high resolution CT scans or cardiopulmonary exercise testing.

How Shortness of Breath Is Treated

The treatment depends on the cause and the duration of symptoms. For example, once it is clear if the problem is from the lungs or the airways, specific treatment like bronchodilators to relax the airways, may be prescribed. If the problem is due to anemia, a patient may need iron supplements. Avoiding asthma triggers, stopping smoking, using oxygen or enrolling in a pulmonary rehabilitation program will also be recommended in certain situations. Most patients will respond to simple interventions once the diagnosis is clear.

    This content was developed in partnership with the CHEST Foundation, the philanthropic arm of the American College of Chest Physicians.

    Reviewed and approved by the American Lung Association Scientific and Medical Editorial Review Panel. Last reviewed June 14, 2016.

    Page Last Updated: March 13, 2018

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