When to see a doctorBy Mayo Clinic staff
Seek emergency medical care
Call 911 or your local emergency number or have someone drive you to the emergency room if you experience severe shortness of breath that comes on suddenly and affects your ability to function. Seek emergency medical care if your shortness of breath is accompanied by chest pain, fainting or nausea — as these may be signs of a heart attack or pulmonary embolism.
Make a doctor's appointment
Make an appointment with your doctor if your shortness of breath is accompanied by:
- Swelling in your feet and ankles
- Trouble breathing when you lie flat
- High fever, chills and cough
- Lips or fingertips turning blue
- Stridor — a high pitched noise that occurs with breathing
- Worsening of pre-existing shortness of breath
To help keep chronic shortness of breath from getting worse:
- Stop smoking. The benefits of quitting smoking are extraordinary. Once you're tobacco-free, your risks of heart disease, lung disease and cancer begin to drop — even if you've been smoking for years.
- Avoid exposure to pollutants. As much as possible, avoid breathing allergens and environmental toxins.
- Lose weight if you are overweight.
- Take care of yourself. If you have an underlying medical condition, take care of it.
- Have an action plan. Discuss with your doctor what to do if your symptoms become worse.
- Avoid exertion at elevations higher than 5,000 feet (1,524 meters).
- If you rely on supplemental oxygen be sure your supply is adequate and the equipment works properly.
- Schwartzstein RM. Approach to the patient with dyspnea. http://www.uptodate.com/home. Accessed March 6, 2013.
- Bozkurt B et al. Shortness of breath. Circulation. 2003;108:11-e13.
- Marx JA, et al. Rosen's Emergency Medicine: Concepts and Clinical Practice. 7th ed. Philadelphia, Pa.: Mosby Elsevier; 2010. http://www.mdconsult.com/books/about.do?about=true&eid=4-u1.0-B978-0-323-05472-0.X0001-1--TOP&isbn=978-0-323-05472-0&uniqId=230100505-57. Accessed March 6, 2013.
- Rosenow EC (expert opinion). Mayo Clinic, Rochester, Minn. March 15, 2013.