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Breathlessness: Treatment, symptoms, advice and help

About breathlessness

Breathlessness is a very common symptom and may result from a number of disorders mainly affecting the respiratory system or the heart. It causes considerable distress to the individual and may have serious implications. A thorough clinical evaluation is usually able to identify the underlying cause, which may be treated in a majority of cases.

Breathlessness: Incidence, age and sex

Breathlessness as a symptom can occur at any age. The underlying causes may be different at different ages.

Signs and symptoms of breathlessness: Diagnosis

Breathlessness implies difficulty in breathing which is perceived as uncomfortable. Breathlessness may occur on exertion or it may be present at rest. In conditions, such as heart failure, there may be worsening of breathlessness when the patient lies down, especially at night. This may cause the patient to spend the night sitting up in bed. In bronchial asthma, the symptoms may be episodic with seasonal predilection and is associated with cough. Patients usually have generalized weakness and easy fatigability.

The diagnosis of the underlying cause of breathlessness may need careful physical examination and appropriate investigations. Chest X-ray, electrocardiogram (ECG), echocardiogram may be needed. Blood test for estimation of haemoglobin may be done if anaemia is suspected. Lung function tests may also be advised to determine the obstruction to airflow and compliance of airways.

Causes and prevention of breathlessness

The causes of breathlessness are most often related to the respiratory system. Conditions like pneumonia, bronchial asthma, chronic bronchitis, emphysema, bronchiectasis and lung cancer - all of these may produce breathlessness. Cardiac conditions like myocardial infarction (heart attack) and heart failure are also some important causes of breathlessness. In addition, anaemia signifying a fall in haemoglobin may also lead to breathlessness. Sometimes, psychological conditions like anxiety and panic attacks may manifest with marked breathlessness.

Breathlessness may be prevented by proper management of the underlying disease which includes regular intake of medications, timely review by the physician and smoking cessation.

Breathlessness: Complications

Breathlessness causes a great deal of distress to the affected person. If the underlying disease is not identified or treated, the condition may worsen and there may be danger to life.

Breathlessness: Treatment

Breathlessness improves on treatment of the underlying disease. In patients with anaemia, there is marked improvement by blood transfusion or administration of iron or deficient vitamins as needed. Individuals with psychogenic causes, benefit from administration of appropriate anxiolytic medicines and behavioural therapy.