Feeling like you’re out of breath after going for a jog is normal, but if you’re feeling winded while lying down, something might be wrong. Shortness of breath is a symptom of a number of diseases, some benign and some serious, and you should see your doctor to ensure you get a proper diagnosis. Be sure to note any other symptoms you’re experiencing when you tell your doctor “I feel like I can’t breathe.”

Common Causes of Shortness of Breath


Allergies are your body’s immune system response to something (pollen or pet hair) your body sees as a foreign object. Serious allergies involve food, medications or bee stings and can be fatal. Symptoms of mild allergies include coughing, sneezing and watery eyes. If you’re having a life-threatening allergic reaction, you’ll experience hives, rash and swelling of your airway.

Seasonal or mild allergies can be treated with over-the-counter medications. If you have a serious allergy, you will need to carry an auto-injector containing epinephrine, which reduces airway swelling. Make sure others know about your allergy, because if you have a serious reaction, you will not be able to speak out other people.


Asthma affects how air flows in and out of your lungs. The bronchial tubes in your lungs with asthma are constantly inflamed, making it difficult to breathe normally. Triggers such as allergens, cold weather and pollution can aggravate symptoms. Common symptoms of asthma include wheezing, chest tightness, shortness of breath and coughing.

Asthma can’t be cured, but it can be managed and treated with certain medications. Inhalers with corticosteroids can help reduce lung and airway inflammation. Oral medications can prevent symptoms or minimize their severity.

Atrial Fibrillation

An irregular heart rhythm is known as atrial fibrillation. This occurs when the atria, or the upper chambers of your heart, can’t pump blood normally. Atrial fibrillation can cause a stroke and blood clots. Symptoms of atrial fibrillation can go unnoticed. But sometimes you may want to say, “I feel like I can’t breathe.” Other subtle signs of atrial fibrillation include dizziness, tiredness, sweating and weakness.

Almost all atrial fibrillation patients are given a blood thinner to prevent blood clots and stroke. Your heart rhythm can be “reset” by getting your heart shocked through electrical cardioversion. Steering clear of caffeine can also stop your heart from racing.


Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is a chronic disease that develops over time. It’s a combination of bronchitis and emphysema. The lung tissue becomes damaged and forms scar tissue (usually from long-term smoking), making it harder to breathe. Symptoms include coughing, wheezing and fatigue.

COPD can’t be cured, but it can be managed like asthma. Quitting smoking is very important if that’s the cause. Most people eventually need 24-hour oxygen therapy, along with inhalers that help open up the airways.

Quit Smoking

After you’ve had your last cigarette, you may ask “why do I feel like I can’t breathe?” Well, smoking damages the lungs, even if you haven’t been smoking that long. And after you quit, your lungs are trying to heal, so you may experience such feeling. Other symptoms include coughing, headaches, and a sore throat.

While you may crave a cigarette, that’s just going to damage your lungs more. There are medications your doctor can prescribe to curb cravings, along with patches and gum.

Less Common Causes of Shortness of Breath


Anemia is a blood disorder where the blood does not produce enough red blood cells. Red blood cells bring oxygen to your organs. When there aren’t enough red blood cells, it can cause fatigue, dizziness, shortness of breath and pale skin.

Anemia is treated with supplements, or through eating iron or vitamin B12 rich foods.


If you’re having an anxiety attack, you may become breathless, because your muscles tighten up, including in the chest, when feeling anxiety. Other symptoms include sweating, dizziness and nausea.

Anxiety attacks can only be stopped by reducing the source of anxiety, or taking a sedative. Seeing a therapist can also help you learn your triggers and reduce the chances of its happening.

Side Effect of Beta Blockers

Beta blockers are medications used to treat heart problems such as high blood pressure and heart failure. They can cause shortness of breath because they make a receptor in the lungs constrict and reduce airflow. Other symptoms include a change in heart rhythm, dizziness and wheezing.

If the shortness of breath is bothersome, your doctor can switch your medication or prescribe a newer beta blocker that may not affect the lungs as much.

Heart Failure

When a person is in end stage heart failure, their body is having difficulty pumping blood to all organs, and this includes the lungs. This happens because the heart can’t pump out a full supply of blood as it’s getting weaker. Shortness of breath can even happen when you are asleep.

Heart failure cannot be cured but can be managed long-term with medications that keep blood pressure low and help the heart not work as hard.

Pulmonary Embolism

This potentially fatal condition will cause you to wonder “Why do I feel like I can’t breathe?” right away when it occurs. A pulmonary embolism is a blood clot that has traveled to the lungs. This shortness of breath will be accompanied by chest pain and coughing.

If you suspect a pulmonary embolism, call 911 or get to an emergency room. You will be given a blood thinner to break up the clot and prevent other ones from forming.

Sleep Apnea

This is a chronic condition where breathing is obstructed during sleeping. If the person is overweight, it can be caused by excess tissue in the throat or weak airway muscles. Common symptoms include tiredness during the day and headaches, as well as difficult breathing to wake you up in the middle night.

Sleep apnea can be treated by losing weight, or with a continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) machine, or a mask to wear while you sleep that delivers a constant flow of air to keep the airway open.

Post Nasal Drip

If you have allergies or a cold, a constant drip of mucus down your throat can make you feel shortness of breath. This mucus can block the airway and cause to you wake up in the middle of the night coughing. You will probably also have a stuffy nose and sore throat.

Taking some cold medications before bed or using a nasal spray can provide some relief.


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