Four causes of breathlessness

Pretty blonde woman having breath difficulties

Being short of breath is a normal response to exercise, particularly if you're overweight or unfit. Sometimes though, breathlessness can be a sign of a problem with your lungs or heart, or a sign of anxiety. Here are four reasons why breathlessness can happen - if you're concerned, see your GP.

See also: Could you have an anxiety disorder

SEE ALSO: Seven surprising lung cancer symptoms


Asthma is a common, long-term condition which affects more than 5.4 million people in the UK. Inflammation of the airways can cause symptoms including problems breathing, chest tightness, and coughing and wheezing.

Certain triggers can make it worse, such as exercise, cold air, exposure to cat and dog hair, house dust and pollen, or having a cold or chest infection.

It's possible to develop asthma at any point in your life – not everyone has it from childhood. While some people have severe asthma that can be life threatening, a great many have mild asthma that only affects them when exercising.

If you regularly get breathless or experience chest tightness and coughing, see your GP who may prescribe an inhaler to see if it relieves your symptoms.


When we're anxious, we tend to breathe more shallowly and quickly, which can lead to a sense of not getting enough air in. Panic attacks, an acute form of anxiety, cause rapid breathing along with chest tightness, trembling, palpitations, dizziness and disorientation.

Although panic attacks tend to pass quickly, they can be very frightening and people who experience them often fear that they are having a heart attack.

Whether you suffer with general anxiety or panic attacks, it's worth seeing your doctor. There are a range of things your GP can suggest, from medication to cognitive behavioural therapy.

Heart problems

Heart attacks don't always happen how they appear in the movies. Of course, some people will clutch their chest and double over, unable to breathe – but many experience a heart attack differently, particularly women. For instance, sudden breathlessness may be accompanied by pain in the jaw, neck and arms, rather than the chest. Some people may also feel weak and light-headed and very anxious.

If you have a history of heart disease in the family, are overweight or obese, have high blood pressure, are sedentary or smoke, you will be at increased risk of cardiovascular disease.

Angina can cause chronic breathlessness, as can arrhythmia – an abnormal heart rhythm. If you experience breathlessness and notice that your pulse is irregular, see a medical professional. An ECG can reveal if anything abnormal is happening, and additional cardio and lung-function tests can be carried out if necessary.

Lung issues

Persistent breathlessness which gets worse with activity, when you walk up the stairs for example, can be a sign of lung cancer or conditions like chronic bronchitis and emphysema.

If you're over the age of 50 and smoke, it's particularly important to get checked out - especially if you also have a persistent cough, or are coughing up phlegm and blood.

While it can be tempting to dismiss it as a 'smoker's cough,' it's important to see your GP if your cough has been lingering for weeks or is getting worse.

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