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What is Dyspnea?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 17, 2024
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Dyspnea is a breathing disorder which is characterized by difficult, labored breathing which makes the patient feel as though he or she is suffocating or fighting for air. It is sometimes called “air hunger,” in a reference to the fact that patients feel starved for breath, and it is caused by a wide variety of medical problems. Difficulty breathing is a serious medical symptom, and it requires medical attention to resolve the issue which is causing the breathing difficulty.

Someone with dyspnea may experience this condition in a variety of ways. Some patients find it hard to draw in breath, while others have trouble exhaling. It may be hard to move air through the lungs, or it may be possible to inhale and exhale normally, but the patient may feel starved for air because the capacity for gas diffusion in the lungs has been diminished. A vise-like sensation in the chest may be experienced, along with a sense of pressure which makes it hard to breathe.

Along with symptoms which are experienced by the patient, dyspnea has some very obvious physical symptoms which can be observed by other people. People with difficulty breathing often have loud, labored breathes which may by accompanied with wheezing, coughing, or other signs of strain. Fingertips and toes may turn bluish to white due to poor circulation, and the patient may become pale, sweaty, or agitated.

Lung diseases, circulatory problems, and a wide variety of other conditions can lead to dyspnea. The condition may also appear in response to physical or emotional strain. Some dyspnea is expected and normal with heavy exercise, but excessive difficulty breathing or periods of prolonged coughing, the development of fluid in the lungs, and chest pain after or during exercise are signs that medical attention is needed.

Treatment of dyspnea often starts with securing the airway to make the patient more comfortable. Antianxiety drugs may also be provided to reduce panic. Then, a series of medical tests can be used to explore the cause of the problem, including imaging studies to look at the lungs, bloodwork to assess general physical health, and a physical exam. After a diagnosis has been arrived at, a treatment plan can be developed to resolve the underlying condition, hopefully causing the dyspnea to dissipate as well.

Dyspnea is also associated with lung cancer and chronic pulmonary illnesses, in which case management of dyspnea may be a specific part of the treatment program.

WiseGeek is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a WiseGeek researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By medicchristy — On Feb 11, 2011

@momothree: Apnea is actually a very serious condition. The prefixes explain what the words mean. In this case, the prefix “dys” means difficulty so dyspnea means difficulty breathing. The prefix “a” means without so apnea means “without breathing”. The actual definition of apnea is “suspension of external breathing”.

There are several ways to experience apnea. You can hold your breath and be apneic. Apnea can also be drug or mechanically induced. In your aunt’s case, it would be due to complications of her COPD. Our bodies cannot sustain for very long in apneic spells. It leads to severe lack of oxygen and permanent brain damage can occur. It is very serious and can ultimately lead to death.

By momothree — On Feb 09, 2011

What is the difference in dyspnea and apnea? My aunt has COPD and has frequent dyspnea spells. However, her doctor told her that it could lead to apnea if she didn't take care of herself. I'm not sure what the difference is in the two.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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