Difficulty breathing can look like trouble inhaling or exhaling, or a person might feel like they are not getting enough oxygen.

Breathing difficulties can be mild or severe, depending on the wide range of causes. Some are mild and will resolve quickly, but others are more serious and require medical attention.


Allergies can come from various triggers, but most allergic reactions result in difficulty breathing. Pollen, dust mites, mold, animal dander, latex, food allergies, and insect venom can all cause a runny nose, wheezing, or chest tightness.

Severe allergic reactions, called anaphylaxis, are rare but life-threatening. Severe symptoms appear in minutes and include throat swelling, which makes breathing difficult or impossible.

woman with cat allergy blowing her nose



Deconditioning occurs when someone has a lower-than-expected limit to physical activity. People who have difficulty breathing when they exert themselves may be experiencing deconditioning. Sometimes, this term refers to an athlete who is out of practice and performing less proficiently than they once did.

Deconditioning is also common in people recovering from a long illness or bed rest or those with a sedentary lifestyle. In these cases, they may experience difficulty breathing when getting up from a seated position or walking up stairs.

runner on road out of breath


Cold and Flu

Both upper airway and lung infections, like the common cold and flu, can cause difficulty breathing. The common cold is a viral infection affecting the nose and throat. When people get a cold, they often have a runny nose or nasal or chest congestion, which can cause difficulty breathing.

Influenza or the flu is another virus that affects the nose and throat, but it also attacks the lungs. People with the flu may feel like they have a cold, but these symptoms quickly worsen, leading to shortness of breath, a dry cough, and others that affect the whole body.

young woman in bed unable to breathe



Asthma is a chronic condition that causes difficulty breathing. During an asthma attack, three things can happen.

  1. The muscles around the airways can tighten, making them narrow so that air cannot flow through as easily.
  2. The lining of the airways can swell, making them even narrower, so it's hard for air to pass.
  3. The body may also create more mucus, which is thick and clogs up the airways even more.

Allergies can trigger asthma attacks, but so can stress, exercise, and weather.

woman having trouble breathing reaching for asthma inhaler


Stress and Anxiety

Everyone experiences stress and anxiety, but people with anxiety disorders have much more intense reactions. There are many types of anxiety disorders, including panic disorder, agoraphobia, social anxiety, and phobias. Any of these can trigger a variety of symptoms, including difficulty breathing.

While there are many ways to cope with stress and anxiety disorders, including medication and therapy, some breathing techniques are a home treatment option that may help.

worried-looking woman having trouble breathing


High Altitudes

Being at a high altitude can cause difficulty breathing, but if you are traveling above 8,000 feet, you likely already know this is possible and might not be surprised when it happens.

Difficulty breathing at high altitudes is one of the symptoms of altitude sickness, along with sleep problems, fatigue, and loss of appetite. Some people are more prone to difficulty breathing at high altitudes, like those with a lung or heart condition, are pregnant, or have a history of altitude sickness.

woman hiking in mountains out of breath



Pregnant women also experience difficulty breathing, particularly in the third trimester. As the baby grows, it takes up more space and moves around, and this can result in extreme discomfort.

The lungs often cannot expand fully, and some women find it challenging to sleep lying down because it is too difficult to breathe.

pregnant woman having trouble breathing



Choking causes difficulty breathing and may cut off oxygen to the brain. One sign of choking is strained or noisy breathing. It might sound like wheezing or squeaking.

It is important to remember, though, that sometimes a person will not make any noises at all if their airway is completely blocked.

woman helping her husband who is choking outside


Lung Problems

Many medical conditions affect the lungs and cause difficulty breathing. Some of these are chronic, like COPD, emphysema, or pulmonary hypertension, while others are medical emergencies, like a pulmonary embolism, a blockage in the arteries that supply the lungs.

Other conditions that can cause difficulty breathing include lung cancer, tuberculosis, or croup.

older woman sitting up in bed trouble breathing


Heart Problems

The heart and the lungs work together to oxygenate the blood, which is why many heart conditions also cause difficulty breathing.

These conditions include but are not limited to problems with the heart muscle, like cardiomyopathy or congestive heart failure; pericarditis, which is inflammation of the tissue surrounding the heart; and congenital heart defects. Conditions that affect circulation, like coronary artery disease and heart attack, can also lead to breathing difficulties.

man sitting on couch experiencing chest pain


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