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What Is Dyspnea?

Dyspnea is a medical term to describe shortness of breath or difficulty catching your breath. You might feel shortness of breath occasionally, often, or all the time. If you are concerned about dyspnea, our specialists will help you diagnose the cause and get the treatment you need.

Why Choose University of Utah Health?

The Dyspnea Clinic at U of U Health was the first of its kind in the western United States combining the expertise of both a pulmonologist and cardiologist in the same clinic. Cardiologists and pulmonologists at U of U Health work together to diagnose and treat patients for a wide variety of heart or lung conditions that cause dyspnea, or shortness of breath. This combined expertise clinic is the only clinic in the Mountain West region to bring together these specialists for diagnosing the causes of dyspnea.

We offer advanced imaging and other diagnostic studies that provide insight into causes and conditions beyond what a typical medical office is able to identify. As an academic research facility, we also keep up with all the latest studies and treatments in cardiology and pulmonology to provide our patients with the most advanced care for shortness of breath.

Types of Dyspnea

There are different terms used to describe shortness of breath, depending on how it occurs: 

  • Nocturnal dyspnea—This occurs mostly at night when you are sleeping.
  • Exertional dyspnea—This occurs when you are exerting your body during activities such as intense exercise.
  • Orthopnea—This occurs when you experience shortness of breath and discomfort while lying down. This is usually a sign of heart failure. Lying down should make it easier for your heart to pump blood throughout your body. However, if you have orthopnea, your heart is not strong enough to pump all the blood out. Extra blood leaks into your lungs and makes it harder to breathe in this position.

Dyspnea Symptoms

The most common symptom of dyspnea is having trouble breathing or feeling unable to catch your breath. It can happen when you are:

  • exerting yourself during exercise, 
  • doing normal daily activities, or
  • while sitting or lying down. 

Other symptoms associated with dyspnea might include: 

  • tingling in your chest,
  • tightness in your chest,
  • edema (swelling in your legs and feet),
  • fingers and toes that turn blue or look discolored,
  • a feeling of suffocating, or
  • lightheadedness. 

What to Do When Experiencing Shortness of Breath

If you experience shortness of breath that comes on suddenly, go to the emergency room or call 911 to get help right away. For mild shortness of breath, sit down or find a place that you can rest until you catch your breath.

Dyspnea Causes

Dyspnea is a common symptom of heart and/or lung disease.  

Conditions that can put you at higher risk of developing dyspnea include: 

When to See a Doctor for Shortness of Breath

If dyspnea comes on suddenly and is persistent, go to the nearest emergency room or call 911.  

Some people may blame shortness of breath on getting older or being out of shape. However, dyspnea can be a sign of more serious health problems. See a doctor if you have shortness of breath, especially if you notice it getting worse over time. 

You should also see a specialist if you wake up several times during the night with shortness of breath or you are extremely tired and cannot stay awake during the day. These may be signs of an obstructive sleep disorder.

Oxygen Levels & Shortness of Breath

You can measure oxygen levels at home with a low-cost device called a pulse oximetry meter (or pulse oximeter). These devices are available online or at your local pharmacy. 

A pulse oximeter clips on the end of your finger. After a few seconds, it gives a reading of how well your blood is pumping oxygen to your body, up to 100 percent (complete oxygen saturation). Healthy adults should have oxygen levels above 92 percent, and ideally above 95 percent. If your oximeter reading is 90 percent or below, see a doctor. 

How Do I Know If My Shortness of Breath Is Heart-Related? 

It can be difficult for you to know whether your dyspnea is the result of a problem with your heart, your lungs, or both. The first step to finding the cause of your dyspnea is to get the correct tests and an accurate diagnosis from a cardiology or pulmonary specialist.

How Dyspnea Is Diagnosed

If you have dyspnea, your primary care provider may do some basic tests to try to figure out the cause. These include: 

  • electrocardiogram (EKG or ECG), 
  • echocardiography,
  • chest X-ray,
  • spirometry and diffusing capacity breathing test (breathing into a tube several times to measure lung function), or
  • various blood tests.

However, these tests do not always reveal the reason for your shortness of breath. 


Getting Tested at the Dyspnea Clinic

The Dyspnea Clinic at U of U Health provides in-depth, specialized testing options to learn more about what might be causing your dyspnea. Primary health care clinics do not offer these tests so you will need to see one of our dyspnea specialists to get them done.

Additional tests may include: 

  • Left or right heart catheter—We will insert a small, thin flexible tube into the left or right side of your heart to diagnose heart problems.
  • Cardiac imaging scans—We can use several types of imaging scans to see what is happening in the muscles and tissues in and around your heart. These include cardiac MRI, cardiac CT, and chest CT scans. 
  • Stress and exercise testing—We will ask you to do different exercises to see how your body handles exercise and monitor your heart rate, breathing, and blood pressure. These include cardiac stress tests, cardiopulmonary exercise testing (CPET), and six-minute walk tests (6MWT). 
  • Bronchoscopy—We will insert a thin tube with a camera into the lungs so we can see the airways inside your lungs. We will also take tissue samples, if necessary. We can also use a special type of bronchoscope (EBUS) with an ultrasound probe on the end to localize specific areas in the lungs. 
  • Overnight oximetry—We will monitor the oxygen levels in your blood continuously throughout the night. This is typically done at home with a device on your finger.
  • Polysomnography—We will monitor your brain waves, oxygen levels, heart rate, and breathing during a sleep test.
  • Biopsy—We will take a small sample of tissue from your heart, lungs, or other part of your body and send it to the lab for testing to help determine specific diagnoses. 
  • Thoracentesis—We will insert a needle into your chest to remove fluid from a small area between your lungs and your chest wall. Fluid in this area can make it harder to breathe. 
  • Lung VQ scan—We will use ventilation (V) scans to measure air flow and perfusion (Q) scans to measure blood flow in your lungs.  
  • Positional pulmonary function tests (PFTs)—We will measure your breathing and lung function in different positions, such as standing up, sitting, and lying down. 


Dyspnea Treatment

The treatment of dyspnea depends on the specific diagnosis causing your shortness of breath. The specialists at U of U Health have extensive experience diagnosing conditions that cause shortness of breath. Once you have a diagnosis, our specialists at the Dyspnea Clinic will provide treatment recommendations or refer you to the right specialist for further care.

Home Remedies for Shortness of Breath

The following activities will help with any shortness of breath you experience at home. 

  • Bring your lips together like you are going to whistle and make a small “o” while taking deep breaths through your mouth. This forces you to slow your breathing. 
  • Sit in a chair and lean forward while relaxing your body. Use a table or a pillow on your lap to support you when you lean forward.
  • Stand with your back against a wall or place your hands on a table to support your body while you relax and take deep breaths.
  • If you have shortness of breath when lying down, place one or more pillows behind your back and one under your knees to help open your airways.

Other lifestyle changes to help you avoid shortness of breath include:

  • eating a healthy diet, 
  • exercising regularly,
  • avoiding allergens or pollutants that can trigger asthma,
  • getting plenty of sleep,
  • not smoking, and
  • maintaining a healthy body weight.

What Exercises are Good for Shortness of Breath? 

Talk to your doctor before you start any exercise program and discuss what is best for you. Most people should get 30 minutes of exercise per day, five days a week (150 total minutes each week).  However, if you should start slow and gradually build up your exercise tolerance if you have not been exercising regularly.   

It’s important to start simple and work up to more intense exercise over time. It’s okay to feel short of breath while you exercise. It’s a sign your body is working hard. However, stop and talk to your doctor if you experience any of the following symptoms during exercise: 

  • lightheadedness,
  • extreme difficulty breathing,
  • tightness or tingling in your chest, or
  • irregular or very fast heartbeat.

You can use a pulse oximeter or other wearable device during exercise to measure your heart rate and oxygen levels. Most of your exercise should be between 50 and 85 percent of your maximum heart rate. The American Heart Association has a chart of max heart rates and target heart rate zones based on your age. 

If your heart rate is way above the target zone, slow down and scale back your exercise. If you are below, try to exercise a little harder to bring your heart rate up.

Schedule an Appointment at the Dyspnea Clinic

Call 801-585-7676 to see one of our pulmonary or cardiology specialists for shortness of breath in the Dyspnea Clinic. Providers can also refer a patient using our online referral form

Most people do not need a referral from a primary care provider (PCP) to see one of our specialists. However, insurance plans sometimes require that you get a referral from your PCP to see a specialist. If you have questions about your coverage and what is required, contact your insurance carrier. 

Find a Dyspnea Specialist Near You

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