Trouble getting a deep breath, trouble getting enough air, rapid breathing, shallow breathing, shortness of breath and breathlessness are all different ways that people describe this symptom. "Trouble getting air out usually means asthma," adds the cardiologist.
"Trouble getting air in and sighing frequently means anxiety." But difficult breathing that is otherwise unexplained by such normal things as exertion, anxiety or excitement, he says, can be caused by pneumonia or heart failure: asthma, bronchitis or emphysema; an inability of the blood to carry enough oxygen, which could be caused by severe anemia; a disease of the nervous system; a blood clot in your lungs or cancer.
But what does your heart have to do with breathing? If your heart isn't pumping efficiently. blood begins to back up in the lungs' millions of tiny capillaries, swelling them stiff with retained fluid. The fluid prevents close contact between air and blood, which means that the oxygen in the air you just inhaled is having a difficult time getting to your bloodstream, The result is a painful gasping for air.
And what's the connection between anemia and difficult breathing? Most anemia is caused by a lack of iron, and iron is an essential part of hemoglobin, the vehicle in which oxygen hitches a ride to the rest of your body. If there's not enough hemoglobin to provide transportation, the rest of your body does not get enough oxygen and you feel breathless.
What does not cause difficult breathing, however, is aging. The idea that your ability to take in oxygen is diminished as you get older is simply not true.
"If you're having a breathing problem you should see your doctor". Shortness of breath can be triggered by so many diverse causes that only your doctor - aided by a stethoscope and possibly an electrocardiogram, an x-ray, the readout from one or two pulmonary function tests and a blood test - can determine exactly what you should do.
For example, if you have heart failure - which, by the way, does not mean your heart has stopped beating - your doctor may recommend that you get plenty of rest. You can sometimes help your breathing by propping yourself up with pillows while you're in bed. Moving your legs around when you sit or lie down will help blood circulate.
Your doctor may also tell you to cut down on your daily intake of salt and may prescribe diuretics, drugs designed to take a load off your heart by reducing the amount of fluid your heart has to pump.
If you have a lung condition associated with irritable or hyperactive airways, such as asthma or bronchitis, avoid irritants such as tobacco smoke, perfume, air pollution and fumes from paint or household cleaners. Other common medical advice includes walking a mile every day to increase your body's ability to use oxygen, and maintaining good health with proper nutrition and sufficient rest. Your doctor may prescribe bronchodilators to keep your airways open or corticosteroids to reduce any inflammation or swelling.
Steam or mist from a vaporizer may also help make breathing easier Only those people who are strong enough to cough, however, should do this.
If blood tests reveal you're anemic, you may need a dose of iron, vitamin B12 or folic acid, doctors say, depending on what caused your anemia in the first place.
If you're lightheaded and dizzy, have chest pain and feel like you're smothering, you may be one of the estimated 25 percent of the population who has episodes of hyperventilation, which means abnormally prolonged and deep breathing. These, are also symptoms of a heart attack, however, so if you're experiencing them for the first time, see your doctor immediately. If it turns out you're a victim of hyperventilation, trying not to worry about the episodes and learning to relax may be the best long-term solution. For temporary relief during the episodes, cover your mouth and nose with a paper bag and breathe normally.