Dyspnea

Dyspnea is the subjective sensation of breathing discomfort. Dyspnea is a normal manifestation of heavy physical or psychologic exertion, but also may be caused by underlying conditions (both pulmonary and extrapulmonary). The medical history and physical exam of a patient presenting with dyspnea should be used to rule out certain conditions or suggest the most likely cause of the respiratory discomfort. Management focuses on treating the underlying condition.

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Editorial responsibility: Stanley Oiseth, Lindsay Jones, Evelin Maza

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Definition and Epidemiology

Definition

Dyspnea is the subjective sensation of breathing discomfort that derives from interactions among multiple physiologic, psychologic, social, and environmental factors. 

  • Also referred to as chest tightness or shortness of breath
  • Experienced and described differently among patients depending on the cause
  • Types:
    • Acute dyspnea: occurring within minutes of the triggering event
    • Chronic dyspnea: lasting longer than 1 month

Epidemiology

  • Very common symptom, present in: 
    • 50% of inpatients
    • 25% of ambulatory patients
    • 9%–13% of the entire population
    • 37% of people aged ≥ 70 years
  • In chronic obstructive pulmonary disease Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is a lung disease characterized by progressive, largely irreversible airflow obstruction. The condition usually presents in middle-aged or elderly persons with a history of cigarette smoking. Signs and symptoms include prolonged expiration, wheezing, diminished breath sounds, progressive dyspnea, and chronic cough. Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) ( COPD COPD Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is a lung disease characterized by progressive, largely irreversible airflow obstruction. The condition usually presents in middle-aged or elderly persons with a history of cigarette smoking. Signs and symptoms include prolonged expiration, wheezing, diminished breath sounds, progressive dyspnea, and chronic cough. Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD)) and other pathologic lung and heart conditions, dyspnea may be a better predictor of outcome than traditional assessments.

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Etiology

There are 5 basic categories of causes that can lead to dyspnea. The causes can present individually or as a combination:

  1. Respiratory conditions
  2. Cardiac conditions
  3. Neuromuscular conditions
  4. Psychogenic conditions
  5. Systemic illnesses

General causes of dyspnea

Table: Pulmonary causes of dyspnea
Etiology Clinical presentation Associated conditions
Obstructive lung disease Characterized by air trapping in the lungs Lungs Lungs are the main organs of the respiratory system. Lungs are paired viscera located in the thoracic cavity and are composed of spongy tissue. The primary function of the lungs is to oxygenate blood and eliminate CO2. Lungs:
  • ↑ FRC and TLC
  • ↓↓ FEV₁
  • ↓ FVC
  • ↓ FEV₁/FVC
Findings:
  • Wheezing
  • Dyspnea is not worsened by a change in body position.
  • COPD COPD Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is a lung disease characterized by progressive, largely irreversible airflow obstruction. The condition usually presents in middle-aged or elderly persons with a history of cigarette smoking. Signs and symptoms include prolonged expiration, wheezing, diminished breath sounds, progressive dyspnea, and chronic cough. Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD)
  • Chronic bronchitis
  • Bronchiectasis Bronchiectasis Bronchiectasis is a chronic disease of the airways that results from permanent bronchial distortion. This results from a continuous cycle of inflammation, bronchial damage and dilation, impaired clearance of secretions, and recurrent infections. Bronchiectasis
  • Emphysema
  • Asthma Asthma Asthma is a chronic inflammatory respiratory condition characterized by bronchial hyperresponsiveness and airflow obstruction. The disease is believed to result from the complex interaction of host and environmental factors that increase disease predisposition, with inflammation causing symptoms and structural changes. Patients typically present with wheezing, cough, and dyspnea. Asthma
Restrictive lung disease Characterized by decreased lung compliance:
  • FVC and TLC
  • FEV₁/FVC ≥ 80%
  • Short, shallow breaths
Findings:
  • Short, shallow breaths
Poor breathing mechanics:
  • Polio
  • Kyphoscoliosis
  • Morbid obesity Obesity Obesity is a condition associated with excess body weight, specifically with the deposition of excessive adipose tissue. Obesity is considered a global epidemic. Major influences come from the western diet and sedentary lifestyles, but the exact mechanisms likely include a mixture of genetic and environmental factors. Obesity

ILDs:
  • Pneumoconiosis Pneumoconiosis Pneumoconiosis is an occupational disease that results from the inhalation and deposition of mineral dusts and other inorganic particles in the lung. It can be categorized according to the type of causative particle involved or by the type of response provoked. Pneumoconiosis
  • Sarcoidosis Sarcoidosis Sarcoidosis is a multisystem inflammatory disease that causes noncaseating granulomas. The exact etiology is unknown. Sarcoidosis usually affects the lungs and thoracic lymph nodes, but it can also affect almost every system in the body, including the skin, heart, and eyes, most commonly. Sarcoidosis
  • Idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis Pulmonary Fibrosis Idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis is a specific entity of the major idiopathic interstitial pneumonia classification of interstitial lung diseases. As implied by the name, the exact causes are poorly understood. Patients often present in the moderate to advanced stage with progressive dyspnea and nonproductive cough. Pulmonary Fibrosis
  • Drug toxicity:
    • Bleomycin
    • Amiodarone
    • Methotrexate
Upper airway obstruction Airway obstruction Airway obstruction is a partial or complete blockage of the airways that impedes airflow. An airway obstruction can be classified as upper, central, or lower depending on location. Lower airway obstruction (LAO) is usually a manifestation of chronic disease, such as asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). Airway Obstruction Findings:
  • Usually causes acute onset of dyspnea
  • Associated with stridor
  • Epiglottitis Epiglottitis Epiglottitis (or "supraglottitis") is an inflammation of the epiglottis and adjacent supraglottic structures. The majority of cases are caused by bacterial infection. Symptoms are rapid in onset and severe. Epiglottitis
  • Foreign body obstruction
  • Croup Croup Croup, also known as laryngotracheobronchitis, is a disease most commonly caused by a viral infection that leads to severe inflammation of the upper airway. It usually presents in children < 5 years of age. Patients develop a hoarse, "seal-like" barking cough and inspiratory stridor. Croup
Others Clinical presentation and findings vary with the cause.
  • Pulmonary embolism Pulmonary Embolism Pulmonary embolism (PE) is a potentially fatal condition that occurs as a result of intraluminal obstruction of the main pulmonary artery or its branches. The causative factors include thrombi, air, amniotic fluid, and fat. In PE, gas exchange is impaired due to the decreased return of deoxygenated blood to the lungs. Pulmonary Embolism
  • Pneumothorax Pneumothorax A pneumothorax is a life-threatening condition in which air collects in the pleural space, causing partial or full collapse of the lung. A pneumothorax can be traumatic or spontaneous. Patients present with a sudden onset of sharp chest pain, dyspnea, and diminished breath sounds on exam. Pneumothorax
  • Pleural effusions
  • Metastatic disease
  • Pulmonary edema Pulmonary edema Pulmonary edema is a condition caused by excess fluid within the lung parenchyma and alveoli as a consequence of a disease process. Based on etiology, pulmonary edema is classified as cardiogenic or noncardiogenic. Patients may present with progressive dyspnea, orthopnea, cough, or respiratory failure. Pulmonary Edema
FRC: functional residual capacity
TLC: total lung capacity
FEV₁: forced expiratory capacity in 1 second
FVC: forced vital capacity
ILD ILD Interstitial lung diseases are a heterogeneous group of disorders characterized by the inflammation and fibrosis of lung parenchyma, especially the pulmonary connective tissue in the alveolar walls. It may be idiopathic (e.g., idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis) or secondary to connective tissue diseases, medications, malignancies, occupational exposure, or allergens. Interstitial Lung Diseases: interstitial lung disease
Table: Extrapulmonary causes of dyspnea
EtiologyClinical presentationAssociated conditions
Cardiac Often a complication of left-sided heart failure
Findings:
  • Dyspnea varies with body position.
  • Orthopnea
  • Paroxysmal nocturnal dyspnea
  • Bibasilar crackles
  • Hypertensive or valvular heart disease
  • Cardiomyopathy Cardiomyopathy Cardiomyopathy refers to a group of myocardial diseases associated with structural changes of the heart muscles (myocardium) and impaired systolic and/or diastolic function in the absence of other heart disorders (coronary artery disease, hypertension, valvular disease, and congenital heart disease). Overview of Cardiomyopathies
  • Ischemic heart disease Ischemic heart disease Coronary heart disease (CHD), or ischemic heart disease, describes a situation in which an inadequate supply of blood to the myocardium exists due to a stenosis of the coronary arteries, typically from atherosclerosis. Coronary Heart Disease:
    • Stable/unstable angina
    • Acute MI MI MI is ischemia and death of an area of myocardial tissue due to insufficient blood flow and oxygenation, usually from thrombus formation on a ruptured atherosclerotic plaque in the epicardial arteries. Clinical presentation is most commonly with chest pain, but women and patients with diabetes may have atypical symptoms. Myocardial Infarction
    • Coronary heart disease Coronary heart disease Coronary heart disease (CHD), or ischemic heart disease, describes a situation in which an inadequate supply of blood to the myocardium exists due to a stenosis of the coronary arteries, typically from atherosclerosis. Coronary Heart Disease
  • Heart failure with a reduced or preserved EF
  • Pericarditis Pericarditis Pericarditis is an inflammation of the pericardium, often with fluid accumulation. It can be caused by infection (often viral), myocardial infarction, drugs, malignancies, metabolic disorders, autoimmune disorders, or trauma. Acute, subacute, and chronic forms exist. Pericarditis
  • Arrhythmia
Anemia Anemia Anemia is a condition in which individuals have low Hb levels, which can arise from various causes. Anemia is accompanied by a reduced number of RBCs and may manifest with fatigue, shortness of breath, pallor, and weakness. Subtypes are classified by the size of RBCs, chronicity, and etiology. Anemia: Overview Due to impaired tissue oxygenation
Findings:
  • Dyspnea, persistent or on exertion
  • Pale skin Skin The skin, also referred to as the integumentary system, is the largest organ of the body. The skin is primarily composed of the epidermis (outer layer) and dermis (deep layer). The epidermis is primarily composed of keratinocytes that undergo rapid turnover, while the dermis contains dense layers of connective tissue. Structure and Function of the Skin and conjunctivae
  • Tachycardia
  • Hypovolemic shock Shock Shock is a life-threatening condition associated with impaired circulation that results in tissue hypoxia. The different types of shock are based on the underlying cause: distributive (↑ cardiac output (CO), ↓ systemic vascular resistance (SVR)), cardiogenic (↓ CO, ↑ SVR), hypovolemic (↓ CO, ↑ SVR), obstructive (↓ CO), and mixed. Types of Shock
  • Acute hemorrhage
Psychogenic Hyperventilation may lead to acute respiratory alkalosis Respiratory alkalosis The respiratory system is responsible for eliminating the volatile acid carbon dioxide (CO2), which is produced via aerobic metabolism. When hypoventilation occurs, excess carbon dioxide is blown off and respiratory alkalosis develops. The kidneys respond by decreasing serum bicarbonate (HCO3-) through increased HCO3- excretion or decreased excretion of H+. Respiratory Alkalosis manifested as:
  • Paresthesias in the fingertips and around the mouth
  • Tetanic cramps in severe cases
  • Panic disorder Panic disorder Panic disorder is a condition marked by recurrent and episodic panic attacks that occur abruptly and without a trigger. These episodes are time-limited and present with cardiorespiratory (palpitations, shortness of breath, choking), GI (nausea, abdominal distress), and neurologic (paresthesias, lightheadedness) symptoms. Panic Disorder
  • Anxiety
  • Intense pain Pain Pain has accompanied humans since they first existed, first lamented as the curse of existence and later understood as an adaptive mechanism that ensures survival. Pain is the most common symptomatic complaint and the main reason why people seek medical care. Physiology of Pain
  • Somatization disorder
Endocrine Changes in pH and PaCO₂ stimulate the brainstem:
  • Alveolar hyperventilation
  • Deep breathing
  • Compensates acidosis by dilating cerebral arterioles, to increase “washout” of CO₂ from the brainstem
Metabolic acidosis Metabolic acidosis The renal system is responsible for eliminating the daily load of non-volatile acids, which is approximately 70 millimoles per day. Metabolic acidosis occurs when there is an increase in the levels of new non-volatile acids (e.g., lactic acid), renal loss of HCO3-, or ingestion of toxic alcohols. Metabolic Acidosis:
  • Ketoacidosis in diabetes
  • Acidosis in renal insufficiency
Medications:
  • Salicylate overdose
Central dyspnea Clinical presentation and findings vary with the cause. Neuromuscular disease
  • Myasthenia gravis Myasthenia Gravis Myasthenia gravis (MG) is an autoimmune neuromuscular disorder characterized by weakness and fatigability of skeletal muscles caused by dysfunction/destruction of acetylcholine receptors at the neuromuscular junction. MG presents with fatigue, ptosis, diplopia, dysphagia, respiratory difficulties, and progressive weakness in the limbs, leading to difficulty in movement. Myasthenia Gravis
  • Guillain-Barré
  • Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), also known as Lou Gehrig's disease, is a sporadic or inherited neurodegenerative disease of upper motor neurons (UMNs) and lower motor neurons (LMNs). ALS is the most common progressive motor neuron disease in North America, primarily affecting men and individuals of Caucasian ethnicity. Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis
MI MI MI is ischemia and death of an area of myocardial tissue due to insufficient blood flow and oxygenation, usually from thrombus formation on a ruptured atherosclerotic plaque in the epicardial arteries. Clinical presentation is most commonly with chest pain, but women and patients with diabetes may have atypical symptoms. Myocardial Infarction: myocardial infarction Myocardial infarction MI is ischemia and death of an area of myocardial tissue due to insufficient blood flow and oxygenation, usually from thrombus formation on a ruptured atherosclerotic plaque in the epicardial arteries. Clinical presentation is most commonly with chest pain, but women and patients with diabetes may have atypical symptoms. Myocardial Infarction
EF: ejection fraction

Acute dyspnea

Common causes per affected organ system:

  • Conditions affecting the cardiovascular system:
    • Acute myocardial ischemia
    • Heart failure
    • Cardiac tamponade Cardiac tamponade Pericardial effusion is the accumulation of excess fluid in the pericardial space around the heart. The pericardium does not easily expand; thus, rapid fluid accumulation leads to increased pressure around the heart. The increase in pressure restricts cardiac filling, resulting in decreased cardiac output and cardiac tamponade. Pericardial Effusion and Cardiac Tamponade
  • Conditions affecting the respiratory system:
    • Asthma Asthma Asthma is a chronic inflammatory respiratory condition characterized by bronchial hyperresponsiveness and airflow obstruction. The disease is believed to result from the complex interaction of host and environmental factors that increase disease predisposition, with inflammation causing symptoms and structural changes. Patients typically present with wheezing, cough, and dyspnea. Asthma 
    • Pulmonary infection/bronchitis
    • Pulmonary embolism Pulmonary Embolism Pulmonary embolism (PE) is a potentially fatal condition that occurs as a result of intraluminal obstruction of the main pulmonary artery or its branches. The causative factors include thrombi, air, amniotic fluid, and fat. In PE, gas exchange is impaired due to the decreased return of deoxygenated blood to the lungs. Pulmonary Embolism
    • Pneumothorax Pneumothorax A pneumothorax is a life-threatening condition in which air collects in the pleural space, causing partial or full collapse of the lung. A pneumothorax can be traumatic or spontaneous. Patients present with a sudden onset of sharp chest pain, dyspnea, and diminished breath sounds on exam. Pneumothorax
    • Upper airway obstruction Airway obstruction Airway obstruction is a partial or complete blockage of the airways that impedes airflow. An airway obstruction can be classified as upper, central, or lower depending on location. Lower airway obstruction (LAO) is usually a manifestation of chronic disease, such as asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). Airway Obstruction

Chronic or recurrent dyspnea

The 5 most common causes:

  • Asthma Asthma Asthma is a chronic inflammatory respiratory condition characterized by bronchial hyperresponsiveness and airflow obstruction. The disease is believed to result from the complex interaction of host and environmental factors that increase disease predisposition, with inflammation causing symptoms and structural changes. Patients typically present with wheezing, cough, and dyspnea. Asthma
  • COPD COPD Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is a lung disease characterized by progressive, largely irreversible airflow obstruction. The condition usually presents in middle-aged or elderly persons with a history of cigarette smoking. Signs and symptoms include prolonged expiration, wheezing, diminished breath sounds, progressive dyspnea, and chronic cough. Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD)
  • Interstitial lung disease ( ILD ILD Interstitial lung diseases are a heterogeneous group of disorders characterized by the inflammation and fibrosis of lung parenchyma, especially the pulmonary connective tissue in the alveolar walls. It may be idiopathic (e.g., idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis) or secondary to connective tissue diseases, medications, malignancies, occupational exposure, or allergens. Interstitial Lung Diseases)
  • Myocardial dysfunction 
  • Obesity/physical deconditioning 

Pulmonary causes of chronic dyspnea can originate from disturbances in any of the following:

  • Central respiratory controller: the efferent signals from the brain to the ventilatory muscles, which produce “air hunger” when stimulated
  • Ventilatory pump: the muscles, peripheral nerves, airways, and chest wall Chest wall The chest wall consists of skin, fat, muscles, bones, and cartilage. The bony structure of the chest wall is composed of the ribs, sternum, and thoracic vertebrae. The chest wall serves as armor for the vital intrathoracic organs and provides the stability necessary for the movement of the shoulders and arms. Chest Wall used to move air into and out of the lungs Lungs Lungs are the main organs of the respiratory system. Lungs are paired viscera located in the thoracic cavity and are composed of spongy tissue. The primary function of the lungs is to oxygenate blood and eliminate CO2. Lungs
  • Gas exchange: the alveolar membranes:
    • Affected in conditions with hypoxemia +/- hypercapnia
    • Leads to stimulation of the central controller

Extrapulmonary causes of chronic dyspnea:

  • Heart failure
  • Anemia Anemia Anemia is a condition in which individuals have low Hb levels, which can arise from various causes. Anemia is accompanied by a reduced number of RBCs and may manifest with fatigue, shortness of breath, pallor, and weakness. Subtypes are classified by the size of RBCs, chronicity, and etiology. Anemia: Overview
  • Physical deconditioning

Pathophysiology

  • Dyspnea is a poorly understood phenomenon. 
  • Appears to be a mismatch of afferent and efferent signaling between the respiratory and central nervous system Nervous system The nervous system is a small and complex system that consists of an intricate network of neural cells (or neurons) and even more glial cells (for support and insulation). It is divided according to its anatomical components as well as its functional characteristics. The brain and spinal cord are referred to as the central nervous system, and the branches of nerves from these structures are referred to as the peripheral nervous system. General Structure of the Nervous System (CNS) (“neuromechanical uncoupling”): 
    • Afferent signals from:
      • Chemoreceptors activated by hypoxemia, hypercapnia, and acidosis
      • Mechano-, biochemical, and irritant receptors
    • Efferent signals from the CNS (motor cortex, brainstem) to the following: 
      • Respiratory muscles
      • Sensory cortex (by corollary discharge), which cause sensation of work of breathing and air hunger 
    • Autonomic input by fear and anxiety contribute to the dyspneic state.
  • Changes in lung physiology can also contribute to the sensation of dyspnea:
    • Increased airway resistance
    • Increased dead space
    • Ventilation-perfusion mismatch
    • Decrease in lung/ chest wall Chest wall The chest wall consists of skin, fat, muscles, bones, and cartilage. The bony structure of the chest wall is composed of the ribs, sternum, and thoracic vertebrae. The chest wall serves as armor for the vital intrathoracic organs and provides the stability necessary for the movement of the shoulders and arms. Chest Wall compliance
    • Impaired oxygen delivery/utilization:
      • Reduced oxygen-carrying capacity of the blood
      • Physical deconditioning

Diagnosis

Important elements in the clinical history

  • Features of the dyspnea:
    • Duration
    • Onset
    • Severity
    • Progression
  • Triggers:
    • Exertion
    • Body position
    • Cold air
    • Allergy to animal dander or other allergens
    • Stress/anxiety
  • Associated symptoms:
    • Cough
    • Sputum production
    • Orthopnea
    • Paroxysmal nocturnal dyspnea
    • Chest pain Pain Pain has accompanied humans since they first existed, first lamented as the curse of existence and later understood as an adaptive mechanism that ensures survival. Pain is the most common symptomatic complaint and the main reason why people seek medical care. Physiology of Pain
    • Peripheral edema Edema Edema is a condition in which excess serous fluid accumulates in the body cavity or interstitial space of connective tissues. Edema is a symptom observed in several medical conditions. It can be categorized into 2 types, namely, peripheral (in the extremities) and internal (in an organ or body cavity). Edema
    • Palpitations
  • Effects of medications (e.g., albuterol, beta blockers)
  • Tobacco history
  • Thrombosis risk factors
Table: Important elements in the physical exam
Elements of the physical examImportant signsRed-flag signs
Vital signs
  • Stable versus unstable
  • Is the respiratory rate increasing?
  • Is the work of breathing increasing?
Red-flag vital signs:
  • Heart rate > 120/min
  • Respiratory rate > 30/min
  • Pulse oximetry < 90%
  • Hypotension Hypotension Hypotension is defined as low blood pressure, specifically < 90/60 mm Hg, and is most commonly a physiologic response. Hypotension may be mild, serious, or life threatening, depending on the cause. Hypotension
Pulmonary
  • Stridor
  • Wheezing
  • Crackles
  • Rales
Red-flag exam findings:
  • Stridor or airway obstruction Airway obstruction Airway obstruction is a partial or complete blockage of the airways that impedes airflow. An airway obstruction can be classified as upper, central, or lower depending on location. Lower airway obstruction (LAO) is usually a manifestation of chronic disease, such as asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). Airway Obstruction
  • Periods of apnea
  • Use of accessory muscles, chest retractions, or tracheal deviation
  • Cyanosis
  • Altered mental status
  • Fatigue
  • Reduced or asymmetric breath sounds
Cardiovascular
  • Jugular venous distention
  • Distant heart sounds Heart sounds Heart sounds are brief, transient sounds produced by valve opening and closure and by movement of blood in the heart. They are divided into systolic and diastolic sounds. In most cases, only the first (S1) and second (S2) heart sounds are heard. These are high-frequency sounds and arise from aortic and pulmonary valve closure (S1), as well as mitral and tricuspid valve closure (S2). Heart Sounds
  • Tachycardia
  • Arrhythmia
  • Murmurs
  • Gallops
  • Peripheral edema Edema Edema is a condition in which excess serous fluid accumulates in the body cavity or interstitial space of connective tissues. Edema is a symptom observed in several medical conditions. It can be categorized into 2 types, namely, peripheral (in the extremities) and internal (in an organ or body cavity). Edema
Abdominal
  • Protruding abdomen
Musculoskeletal
  • Muscle weakness
  • Clubbing

Labs

  • Complete blood count and basic metabolic profile, especially if patients present with fever Fever Fever is defined as a measured body temperature of at least 38°C (100.4°F). Fever is caused by circulating endogenous and/or exogenous pyrogens that increase levels of prostaglandin E2 in the hypothalamus. Fever is commonly associated with chills, rigors, sweating, and flushing of the skin. Fever, sputum production, or anemia
  • Brain natriuretic peptide (BNP) levels to assist in the diagnosis of heart failure 
  • D-dimer, in conjunction with Well’s criteria, to evaluate for pulmonary embolism
  • Troponin to assist in the diagnosis of MI MI MI is ischemia and death of an area of myocardial tissue due to insufficient blood flow and oxygenation, usually from thrombus formation on a ruptured atherosclerotic plaque in the epicardial arteries. Clinical presentation is most commonly with chest pain, but women and patients with diabetes may have atypical symptoms. Myocardial Infarction
  • Arterial blood gas

Imaging and other tests

  • Chest X-ray to evaluate the presence of cardiopulmonary disease (e.g., congestive heart failure Congestive heart failure Congestive heart failure refers to the inability of the heart to supply the body with normal cardiac output to meet metabolic needs. Echocardiography can confirm the diagnosis and give information about the ejection fraction. Congestive Heart Failure, COPD COPD Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is a lung disease characterized by progressive, largely irreversible airflow obstruction. The condition usually presents in middle-aged or elderly persons with a history of cigarette smoking. Signs and symptoms include prolonged expiration, wheezing, diminished breath sounds, progressive dyspnea, and chronic cough. Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD), cor pulmonale Cor Pulmonale Cor pulmonale is right ventricular (RV) dysfunction caused by lung disease that results in pulmonary artery hypertension. The most common cause of cor pulmonale is chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. Dyspnea is the usual presenting symptom. Cor Pulmonale, pulmonary hypertension Pulmonary Hypertension Pulmonary hypertension (PH) or pulmonary arterial hypertension (PAH) is characterized by elevated pulmonary arterial pressure, which can lead to chronic progressive right heart failure. Pulmonary hypertension is grouped into 5 categories based on etiology, which include primary PAH, and PH due to cardiac disease, lung or hypoxic disease, chronic thromboembolic disease, and multifactorial or unclear etiologies. Pulmonary Hypertension)
  • Lateral neck radiography and direct visualization by endoscopy, if upper airway obstruction Airway obstruction Airway obstruction is a partial or complete blockage of the airways that impedes airflow. An airway obstruction can be classified as upper, central, or lower depending on location. Lower airway obstruction (LAO) is usually a manifestation of chronic disease, such as asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). Airway Obstruction is suspected 
  • Electrocardiogram Electrocardiogram An electrocardiogram (ECG) is a graphic representation of the electrical activity of the heart plotted against time. Adhesive electrodes are affixed to the skin surface allowing measurement of cardiac impulses from many angles. The ECG provides 3-dimensional information about the conduction system of the heart, the myocardium, and other cardiac structures. Normal Electrocardiogram (ECG) ( ECG ECG An electrocardiogram (ECG) is a graphic representation of the electrical activity of the heart plotted against time. Adhesive electrodes are affixed to the skin surface allowing measurement of cardiac impulses from many angles. The ECG provides 3-dimensional information about the conduction system of the heart, the myocardium, and other cardiac structures. Normal Electrocardiogram (ECG)) may detect ischemia/infarction, arrhythmia, or ventricular hypertrophy.
  • Computed tomography (CT) pulmonary angiogram or ventilation-perfusion (VQ) lung scan if pulmonary embolism is suspected 
  • Spirometry can differentiate the following:
    • Obstructive versus restrictive lung disease
    • Upper versus lower airway obstruction Airway obstruction Airway obstruction is a partial or complete blockage of the airways that impedes airflow. An airway obstruction can be classified as upper, central, or lower depending on location. Lower airway obstruction (LAO) is usually a manifestation of chronic disease, such as asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). Airway Obstruction
    • Asthma Asthma Asthma is a chronic inflammatory respiratory condition characterized by bronchial hyperresponsiveness and airflow obstruction. The disease is believed to result from the complex interaction of host and environmental factors that increase disease predisposition, with inflammation causing symptoms and structural changes. Patients typically present with wheezing, cough, and dyspnea. Asthma versus COPD COPD Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is a lung disease characterized by progressive, largely irreversible airflow obstruction. The condition usually presents in middle-aged or elderly persons with a history of cigarette smoking. Signs and symptoms include prolonged expiration, wheezing, diminished breath sounds, progressive dyspnea, and chronic cough. Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD), if used with a bronchodilator 
  • Echocardiography and cardiac stress testing if cardiac conditions are suspected (e.g., MI MI MI is ischemia and death of an area of myocardial tissue due to insufficient blood flow and oxygenation, usually from thrombus formation on a ruptured atherosclerotic plaque in the epicardial arteries. Clinical presentation is most commonly with chest pain, but women and patients with diabetes may have atypical symptoms. Myocardial Infarction, heart failure)
Diagnostic algorithm for dyspnea

Diagnostic algorithm for dyspnea

Image by Lecturio.

Management

  • Symptomatic relief can be achieved with supplemental oxygen, but one must identify and correct the underlying condition for long-term treatment:
    • Asthma Asthma Asthma is a chronic inflammatory respiratory condition characterized by bronchial hyperresponsiveness and airflow obstruction. The disease is believed to result from the complex interaction of host and environmental factors that increase disease predisposition, with inflammation causing symptoms and structural changes. Patients typically present with wheezing, cough, and dyspnea. Asthma:
      • Inhaled bronchodilators, corticosteroids, other medications
      • 5-step treatment strategy from the Global Initiative for Asthma Asthma Asthma is a chronic inflammatory respiratory condition characterized by bronchial hyperresponsiveness and airflow obstruction. The disease is believed to result from the complex interaction of host and environmental factors that increase disease predisposition, with inflammation causing symptoms and structural changes. Patients typically present with wheezing, cough, and dyspnea. Asthma Group
    • COPD COPD Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is a lung disease characterized by progressive, largely irreversible airflow obstruction. The condition usually presents in middle-aged or elderly persons with a history of cigarette smoking. Signs and symptoms include prolonged expiration, wheezing, diminished breath sounds, progressive dyspnea, and chronic cough. Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) exacerbations: 
      • Bronchodilator therapy and a course of oral glucocorticoids Glucocorticoids Glucocorticoids are a class within the corticosteroid family. Glucocorticoids are chemically and functionally similar to endogenous cortisol. There are a wide array of indications, which primarily benefit from the antiinflammatory and immunosuppressive effects of this class of drugs. Glucocorticoids
      • Possible oral antibiotics (antivirals if there is evidence of influenza Influenza Influenza viruses are members of the Orthomyxoviridae family and the causative organisms of influenza, a highly contagious febrile respiratory disease. There are 3 primary influenza viruses (A, B, and C) and various subtypes, which are classified based on their virulent surface antigens, hemagglutinin (HA) and neuraminidase (NA). Influenza typically presents with a fever, myalgia, headache, and symptoms of an upper respiratory infection. Influenza Viruses/Influenza)
      • Supplemental oxygen if hypoxic and pulmonary rehabilitation program
    • Heart failure: 
      • Treatment depends on the type of heart failure and severity.
      • Follow published guidelines for treatment.
      • Heart failure and angina medication
    • Pneumonia/infectious causes: 
      • Use the appropriate antibiotic for the causative pathogen.
    • Pulmonary embolism Pulmonary Embolism Pulmonary embolism (PE) is a potentially fatal condition that occurs as a result of intraluminal obstruction of the main pulmonary artery or its branches. The causative factors include thrombi, air, amniotic fluid, and fat. In PE, gas exchange is impaired due to the decreased return of deoxygenated blood to the lungs. Pulmonary Embolism:
      • Thrombolytics Thrombolytics Thrombolytics, also known as fibrinolytics, include recombinant tissue plasminogen activator (TPa) (i.e., alteplase, reteplase, and tenecteplase), urokinase, and streptokinase. The agents promote the breakdown of a blood clot by converting plasminogen to plasmin, which then degrades fibrin. Thrombolytics ( anticoagulants Anticoagulants Anticoagulants are drugs that retard or interrupt the coagulation cascade. The primary classes of available anticoagulants include heparins, vitamin K-dependent antagonists (e.g., warfarin), direct thrombin inhibitors, and factor Xa inhibitors. Anticoagulants and antiplatelet agents Antiplatelet agents Antiplatelet agents are medications that inhibit platelet aggregation, a critical step in the formation of the initial platelet plug. Abnormal, or inappropriate, platelet aggregation is a key step in the pathophysiology of arterial ischemic events. The primary categories of antiplatelet agents include aspirin, ADP inhibitors, phosphodiesterase/adenosine uptake inhibitors, and glycoprotein IIb/IIIa inhibitors. Antiplatelet Agents)
      • Embolectomy and/or a vena cava filter if thrombolytics are contraindicated
  • If complete relief of dyspnea is not possible, then attempts at lessening the intensity of dyspnea should follow with other therapy:
    • Oxygen supplementation if O₂ saturation < 88% at rest, with activity, or while sleeping
    • Opioids Opioids Opiates are drugs that are derived from the sap of the opium poppy. Opiates have been used since antiquity for the relief of acute severe pain. Opioids are synthetic opiates with properties that are substantially similar to those of opiates. Opioid Analgesics can reduce air hunger, but one must:
      • Consider the risk-benefit profile.
      • Monitor the patient carefully because of opioids’ ability to cause respiratory depression. 
    • Inhaled furosemide appears to be effective (large-scale studies are pending).

Clinical Relevance

The following conditions are the most common causes of dyspnea by organ system:

Cardiovascular conditions

  • Acute MI MI MI is ischemia and death of an area of myocardial tissue due to insufficient blood flow and oxygenation, usually from thrombus formation on a ruptured atherosclerotic plaque in the epicardial arteries. Clinical presentation is most commonly with chest pain, but women and patients with diabetes may have atypical symptoms. Myocardial Infarction: ischemia of the myocardial tissue due to a complete obstruction or drastic constriction of the coronary artery. Acute MI MI MI is ischemia and death of an area of myocardial tissue due to insufficient blood flow and oxygenation, usually from thrombus formation on a ruptured atherosclerotic plaque in the epicardial arteries. Clinical presentation is most commonly with chest pain, but women and patients with diabetes may have atypical symptoms. Myocardial Infarction is usually accompanied by an increase in cardiac enzymes Enzymes Enzymes are complex protein biocatalysts that accelerate chemical reactions without being consumed by them. Due to the body's constant metabolic needs, the absence of enzymes would make life unsustainable, as reactions would occur too slowly without these molecules. Basics of Enzymes, typical ECG ECG An electrocardiogram (ECG) is a graphic representation of the electrical activity of the heart plotted against time. Adhesive electrodes are affixed to the skin surface allowing measurement of cardiac impulses from many angles. The ECG provides 3-dimensional information about the conduction system of the heart, the myocardium, and other cardiac structures. Normal Electrocardiogram (ECG) changes, and chest pain Chest Pain Chest pain is one of the most common and challenging complaints that may present in an inpatient and outpatient setting. The differential diagnosis of chest pain is large and includes cardiac, gastrointestinal, pulmonary, musculoskeletal, and psychiatric etiologies. Chest Pain
  • Heart failure: the inability of the heart to supply the body with normal cardiac output to meet metabolic needs. Risk factors include hypertension Hypertension Hypertension, or high blood pressure, is a common disease that manifests as elevated systemic arterial pressures. Hypertension is most often asymptomatic and is found incidentally as part of a routine physical examination or during triage for an unrelated medical encounter. Hypertension, diabetes mellitus Diabetes mellitus Diabetes mellitus (DM) is a metabolic disease characterized by hyperglycemia and dysfunction of the regulation of glucose metabolism by insulin. Type 1 DM is diagnosed mostly in children and young adults as the result of autoimmune destruction of β cells in the pancreas and the resulting lack of insulin. Type 2 DM has a significant association with obesity and is characterized by insulin resistance. Diabetes Mellitus, and coronary artery disease. Echocardiography can confirm the reduced EF. 
  • Cardiac tamponade Cardiac tamponade Pericardial effusion is the accumulation of excess fluid in the pericardial space around the heart. The pericardium does not easily expand; thus, rapid fluid accumulation leads to increased pressure around the heart. The increase in pressure restricts cardiac filling, resulting in decreased cardiac output and cardiac tamponade. Pericardial Effusion and Cardiac Tamponade: the condition of having an abnormal amount of fluid in the pericardial cavity of the heart that restricts cardiac filling and leads to acute heart failure. Treated by pericardiocentesis, removing the fluid with a needle.

Respiratory conditions

  • Asthma Asthma Asthma is a chronic inflammatory respiratory condition characterized by bronchial hyperresponsiveness and airflow obstruction. The disease is believed to result from the complex interaction of host and environmental factors that increase disease predisposition, with inflammation causing symptoms and structural changes. Patients typically present with wheezing, cough, and dyspnea. Asthma: a chronic inflammatory condition characterized by reversible obstruction to airflow in the lower airways. Presents with intermittent or persistent wheezing Wheezing Wheezing is an abnormal breath sound characterized by a whistling noise that can be relatively high-pitched and shrill (more common) or coarse. Wheezing is produced by the movement of air through narrowed or compressed small (intrathoracic) airways. Wheezing, cough, and dyspnea. Diagnosis is confirmed with pulmonary function testing that shows a reversible obstructive pattern. 
  • Pneumonia: acute or chronic inflammation Inflammation Inflammation is a complex set of responses to infection and injury involving leukocytes as the principal cellular mediators in the body's defense against pathogenic organisms. Inflammation is also seen as a response to tissue injury in the process of wound healing. The 5 cardinal signs of inflammation are pain, heat, redness, swelling, and loss of function. Inflammation of lung tissue caused by infection with bacteria Bacteria Bacteria are prokaryotic single-celled microorganisms that are metabolically active and divide by binary fission. Some of these organisms play a significant role in the pathogenesis of diseases. Bacteriology: Overview, viruses, or fungi Fungi Fungi belong to the eukaryote domain and, like plants, have cell walls and vacuoles, exhibit cytoplasmic streaming, and are immobile. Almost all fungi, however, have cell walls composed of chitin and not cellulose. Fungi do not carry out photosynthesis but obtain their substrates for metabolism as saprophytes (obtain their food from dead matter). Mycosis is an infection caused by fungi. Mycology: Overview. Pneumonia can also be due to toxic triggers through inhalation of toxic substances, immunologic processes, or radiotherapy.
  • Pulmonary embolism Pulmonary Embolism Pulmonary embolism (PE) is a potentially fatal condition that occurs as a result of intraluminal obstruction of the main pulmonary artery or its branches. The causative factors include thrombi, air, amniotic fluid, and fat. In PE, gas exchange is impaired due to the decreased return of deoxygenated blood to the lungs. Pulmonary Embolism: a potentially fatal clinical condition that occurs as a result of mechanical obstruction of the pulmonary artery or its branches by a thrombus, air, or fat. Diagnosis is established by CT pulmonary angiogram.
  • Pneumothorax Pneumothorax A pneumothorax is a life-threatening condition in which air collects in the pleural space, causing partial or full collapse of the lung. A pneumothorax can be traumatic or spontaneous. Patients present with a sudden onset of sharp chest pain, dyspnea, and diminished breath sounds on exam. Pneumothorax: a collection of air in the pleural space that causes the lung to collapse due to the loss of negative pressure. Presents with pleuritic chest pain Chest Pain Chest pain is one of the most common and challenging complaints that may present in an inpatient and outpatient setting. The differential diagnosis of chest pain is large and includes cardiac, gastrointestinal, pulmonary, musculoskeletal, and psychiatric etiologies. Chest Pain, dyspnea, tachycardia, and reduced breath sounds on the ipsilateral side.
  • Airway obstruction: a partial or complete blockage of airflow in the respiratory tract, which can be classified into upper or lower airway obstructions. Usually associated with foreign body aspirations, but can be caused by other conditions including mucous plug, epiglottitis, infections, smoke inhalation, goiter Goiter A goiter is a chronic enlargement of the thyroid gland due to nonneoplastic growth occurring in the setting of hypothyroidism, hyperthyroidism, or euthyroidism. Morphologically, thyroid enlargement can be diffuse (smooth consistency) or nodular (uninodular or multinodular). Goiter, etc.
  • COPD COPD Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is a lung disease characterized by progressive, largely irreversible airflow obstruction. The condition usually presents in middle-aged or elderly persons with a history of cigarette smoking. Signs and symptoms include prolonged expiration, wheezing, diminished breath sounds, progressive dyspnea, and chronic cough. Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD): a spectrum of conditions characterized by irreversible airflow limitation correlated to smoking. Results from obstructive inflammation Inflammation Inflammation is a complex set of responses to infection and injury involving leukocytes as the principal cellular mediators in the body's defense against pathogenic organisms. Inflammation is also seen as a response to tissue injury in the process of wound healing. The 5 cardinal signs of inflammation are pain, heat, redness, swelling, and loss of function. Inflammation of the small airways as well as changes in the lung parenchyma and pulmonary vasculature. 
  • ILD ILD Interstitial lung diseases are a heterogeneous group of disorders characterized by the inflammation and fibrosis of lung parenchyma, especially the pulmonary connective tissue in the alveolar walls. It may be idiopathic (e.g., idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis) or secondary to connective tissue diseases, medications, malignancies, occupational exposure, or allergens. Interstitial Lung Diseases: a heterogeneous group of disorders characterized by the inflammation Inflammation Inflammation is a complex set of responses to infection and injury involving leukocytes as the principal cellular mediators in the body's defense against pathogenic organisms. Inflammation is also seen as a response to tissue injury in the process of wound healing. The 5 cardinal signs of inflammation are pain, heat, redness, swelling, and loss of function. Inflammation and fibrosis of the lung parenchyma, especially the pulmonary connective tissue Connective tissue Connective tissues originate from embryonic mesenchyme and are present throughout the body except inside the brain and spinal cord. The main function of connective tissues is to provide structural support to organs. Connective tissues consist of cells and an extracellular matrix. Connective Tissue in the alveolar walls. May be idiopathic or secondary to connective tissue Connective tissue Connective tissues originate from embryonic mesenchyme and are present throughout the body except inside the brain and spinal cord. The main function of connective tissues is to provide structural support to organs. Connective tissues consist of cells and an extracellular matrix. Connective Tissue diseases, medications, malignancies, occupational exposure, or allergens.

References

  1. Parshall, M.B., Schwartzstein, R.M., et al. (2012). American Thoracic Society Committee on Dyspnea. Am J Respir Crit Care Med. 185(4):435. 
  2. Schwartzstein, R.M. (2020). Approach to the patient with dyspnea. UpToDate. Retrieved September 16, 2020, from https://www.uptodate.com/contents/approach-to-the-patient-with-dyspnea?search=dyspnea&source=search_result&selectedTitle=1~150&usage_type=default&display_rank=1
  3. Baron, R.M. (2018). In Jameson, J.L., et al. (Ed.), Harrison’s Principles of Internal Medicine (20th ed. Vol 1, pp. 226–230 and 1943–1947). 
  4. Pasterkamp, H. (2012). Kendig & Chernick’s Disorders of the Respiratory Tract in Children (8th ed.), pp. 110–130.

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