Trying to catch your breath? What's normal and when to see your doctor

Posted by Maureen O'Donnell, R.R.T.
June 18, 2015

Maureen ODonnell RRT

Few sensations are as frightening as not being able to get enough air. Although healthy people occasionally may experience shortness of breath, especially in extreme temperatures, after running up a flight of stairs or when in high altitude, persistent shortness of breath is a sign of a medical problem.

Shortness of breath is not a symptom of getting older. People sometimes blame it on age when it actually is due to a medical condition that can be treated. Most cases of shortness of breath are due to heart or lung conditions. Your heart and lungs are involved in transporting oxygen to your tissues and removing carbon dioxide, so problems with either of these organs can impact your breathing.

Speak with your primary care provider if you have worsening or consistent shortness of breath in these situations:

  • Walking up a flight of stairs. Everyone occasionally gets shortness of breath after walking up a flight of stairs. Are you are consistently out of breath, more out of breath that you think you should be or has it progressively gotten worse?
  • Walking a moderate distance. Do you need to rest after walking around the block or across a large parking lot? Compare this distance to what you could walk six or 12 months ago.
  • Wheezing during exercise. Wheezing is a high-pitched whistling sound made while you breathe. Regular wheezing during exercise should be discussed with your provider.
  • Persistent coughing. An ongoing cough that leaves you gasping for breath can be a sign of a medical problem.

There are many things you can do to improve your lung heath, including getting regular exercise, not smoking and getting prescription medication from your primary care provider. 

Always call 911 if you experience severe shortness of breath that comes on suddenly and affects your ability to function.

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