Causes, treatment, and seeking help


There are several possible causes of shortness of breath and dizziness, such as asthma, stress, and anemia. Not all of these causes warrant a trip to the emergency room.

However, shortness of breath and dizziness may indicate serious, even life threatening conditions, such as a heart attack or blood clot in the arteries of the lungs.

Dizziness includes various sensations, such as vertigo and presyncope.

A person with vertigo may feel as if the room is spinning around them. They may also feel off balance or unsteady.

Presyncope is the sensation of faintness or lightheadedness. A person with presyncope may feel as if they are about to pass out. They may also experience weakness, nausea, or blurry vision.

A doctor should evaluate any new, concerning shortness of breath. A person can contact a doctor to find out whether they need to go to the emergency room.

In this article, we discuss why a person might experience shortness of breath and dizziness. We also outline different treatment options and indicate when to seek help for these symptoms.

Shortness of breath and dizziness can occur alongside symptoms of the following emergency medical conditions:

  • Heart attack: This causes uncomfortable pressure, a squeezing sensation, or pain in the chest.
  • Pulmonary embolism: This causes chest pain that worsens when breathing or spreads into the neck, shoulder, or arm.
  • Anaphylaxis: This can cause red, itchy bumps on the skin, swelling of the tongue or throat, and low blood pressure.

People should call 911 or go to the nearest emergency room if they or someone they are with experiences these symptoms.

The following conditions affect the lungs and can cause a person to experience shortness of breath and dizziness.

COVID-19

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) note that shortness of breath is one of the symptoms of COVID-19, the disease that occurs due to the severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2).

In a 2020 study, researchers from China reported dizziness and headache as the two most common neurological symptoms among 214 people with COVID-19.

Most people develop symptoms 2–14 days after exposure to SARS-CoV-2.

Other signs and symptoms to look for include:

Treatment

People who experience mild to moderate symptoms can recover at home. They should make sure to stay hydrated and get plenty of rest. Over-the-counter medicines, such as acetaminophen, can help reduce muscle aches and fevers.

Learn more about the home treatment options for COVID-19 here.

People who experience severe respiratory symptoms may require supplemental oxygen therapy or mechanical ventilation to help them breathe.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) have approved the antiviral drug remdesivir (Veklury) for people admitted to the hospital with COVID-19 who are over the age of 12 and weigh at least 40 kilograms (88 pounds).

They have also granted emergency use authorization for remdesivir to other patients hospitalized with COVID-19, and for remdesivir in combination with baricitinib (Olumiant).

Asthma

Asthma refers to chronic inflammation of the airways.

It restricts the flow of air in and out of the lungs. People with asthma may experience the following symptoms during an asthma attack:

  • difficulty breathing or shortness of breath
  • coughing
  • wheezing
  • chest tightness
  • dizziness

Different factors can trigger an asthma attack, including:

  • exercise or other strenuous physical activity
  • allergens, such as dander and pollen
  • mold
  • tobacco smoke
  • dust mites
  • chemicals
  • laughing or crying

The National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute note that people may experience worse asthma symptoms at different times throughout the day, such as in the morning or at night.

Asthma is a chronic condition. As a result, anyone with asthma will need to follow a treatment plan designed by a doctor.

Treatment

Treatments for asthma involve long-term medications that help control asthma symptoms. These include:

A doctor may also prescribe one or more of the following medications that offer short-term relief during an asthma attack:

  • fast-acting beta-agonists
  • oral or injectable corticosteroids
  • fast-acting anticholinergics that help open the airways

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) refers to progressive lung diseases that cause breathing-related problems. COPD includes chronic bronchitis and emphysema.

COPD reduces airflow to and from the lungs, which lowers the level of oxygen in the blood.

Low blood oxygen levels can lead to dizziness, shortness of breath, and headache.

Other symptoms of COPD include:

  • persistent cough that produces mucus
  • wheezing while breathing
  • chest tightness
  • rapid heartbeat
  • lips and fingernails that turn blue or gray

Treatment

Treatments for COPD can help relieve symptoms and slow the disease progression. Examples of COPD treatments include:

  • quitting smoking
  • medicated inhalers
  • oxygen therapy
  • surgery to remove damaged lung tissue
  • lung transplant

Pulmonary embolism

Pulmonary embolism occurs when a blood clot that developed in a vein outside of the lung breaks loose and travels to the lungs.

The United Kingdom’s National Health Service (NHS) note that one of the main causes of pulmonary embolism is deep vein thrombosis, which is a blood clot deep in the veins of the leg.

A pulmonary embolism can lead to sudden shortness of breath, dizziness, and chest pain.

Other symptoms of pulmonary embolism include:

  • sharp, intense pain in the chest, arm, shoulder, or neck
  • wheezing or difficulty breathing
  • cough with or without blood mucus
  • rapid heartbeat
  • excessive sweating
  • pale or bluish-colored skin

Severe symptoms of pulmonary embolism are a medical emergency, and therefore a person experiencing such symptoms should seek immediate medical assistance.

Treatment

Treatments of pulmonary embolism include:

  • blood thinners, which prevent blood clots from forming or getting larger
  • thrombolytics, which quickly dissolve blood clots
  • a procedure to place a filter inside of the vena cava that catches blood clots before they travel to the lungs
  • surgery to remove a blood clot from a pulmonary artery

Learn more about the treatment options for a pulmonary embolism here.

The following conditions, which affect the heart, can cause shortness of breath and dizziness.

Heart attack

A heart attack, or myocardial infarction, occurs when part of the heart does not receive enough oxygen-rich blood.

This can happen if a plaque builds up in the walls of the arteries or if a coronary artery suddenly contracts, restricting blood flow to the heart.

The main symptom of a heart attack is chest pain that feels like an uncomfortable pressure or squeezing sensation in the chest. Chest pain can radiate to the shoulders, neck, or jaw.

People may also feel lightheaded, dizzy, or weak.

Other signs of a heart attack include:

  • shortness of breath
  • sudden fatigue
  • nausea or vomiting

People should call 911 immediately if they or someone they know is experiencing symptoms of a heart attack.

Treatment

A doctor can use the following treatments to restore blood flow and minimize damage to the heart:

Learn more about the treatment options for a heart attack here.

Heart failure

Heart failure, also known as congestive heart failure, occurs when the heart muscle grows weaker. The heart grows too weak to circulate blood through the body, and fluid may build up in the legs and abdomen.

A person with heart failure may experience dizziness if their heart does not supply their brain with enough oxygen-rich blood.

Other symptoms of heart failure include:

  • shortness of breath
  • increased heart rate
  • fatigue
  • persistent coughing
  • lack of appetite
  • nausea
  • confusion or memory loss

Treatments

A doctor may recommend the following lifestyle changes for people with heart failure:

  • eating more fruits, vegetables, and protein
  • limiting sodium, sugar, and trans fat intake
  • getting more physical activity
  • quitting smoking
  • reaching a moderate body weight

Medications that treat heart failure include:

  • blood pressure medications, such as ACE inhibitors and beta-blockers
  • diuretics, which reduce fluid accumulation in the legs and feet
  • digoxin, which strengthens the pumping action of the heart

Arrhythmia

Heart rhythm disorder, or heart arrhythmia, occurs when the rhythm of the heartbeat changes. The heart may beat too fast or too slow or have a random pattern. A person with a heart rhythm disorder might not have noticeable symptoms.

However, if symptoms do appear, they can include:

  • dizziness or lightheadedness
  • shortness of breath
  • sudden fatigue
  • fainting
  • angina or chest pain
  • profuse sweating
  • difficulty concentrating
  • confusion

Treatments

Antiarrhythmic drugs suppress the transmission of electrical signals in heart tissue. These medications can help the heart beat slower or more evenly.

A pacemaker is a small device that sends electrical pulses to the heart muscle. It can help speed up a heartbeat that is slower than normal.

The following mental health conditions can cause shortness of breath and dizziness.

Stress

According to a 2017 article, stress can impact numerous body systems, including the central nervous system (CNS), immune system, and cardiovascular system.

Long-term or chronic stress may also contribute to other health conditions, such as depression, anxiety, and heart disease.

A person can also experience stress if they feel fear or pain in response to:

  • injuries
  • receiving a shot
  • having blood drawn

When a person feels stress, the brain releases hormones, such as adrenaline and cortisol, that affect the CNS, as well as the respiratory, circulatory, and digestive systems.

A person under a great deal of stress may experience rapid heartbeat and shallow breathing, which can lead to hyperventilation and feeling dizzy or faint.

Other signs of stress include:

  • trembling or shaking
  • sweating
  • headaches
  • nausea
  • chest pain
  • difficulty concentrating
  • problems sleeping

Treatment

The following tips can help relieve stress:

  • managing sources of stress, such as projects at work or school
  • spending more time on enjoyable activities and hobbies
  • practicing deep breathing exercises and meditation
  • exercising regularly
  • getting enough sleep every night
  • confronting personal conflicts
  • working with a mental health counselor

Learn more about the treatment options for stress here.

Panic attacks and panic disorder

Panic disorder is a type of anxiety disorder that involves feelings of intense fear or dread.

Panic attacks can occur unexpectedly. Other times, a frightening situation or emotionally intense interaction can trigger a panic attack.

People who have panic disorder may experience one or more of the following symptoms during a panic attack:

  • shortness of breath
  • lightheadedness
  • feeling smothered or choked
  • an overwhelming sense of doom
  • chest pain
  • perceived loss of control
  • heart palpitations
  • rapid heartbeat
  • trembling or shaking
  • sweating

Treatment

There are many treatment options for panic disorder.

These may include:

Anaphylaxis is a sudden, severe allergic reaction.

Common causes of anaphylaxis include:

When the body detects an allergen, it produces histamine, a compound that triggers inflammation.

This response can cause the airways to swell and narrow, making breathing difficult.

Other symptoms of anaphylaxis include:

  • dizziness
  • shortness of breath or wheezing
  • a rapid drop in blood pressure
  • feeling faint
  • loss of consciousness
  • chest pain
  • stomach cramps
  • nausea or vomiting
  • hives
  • swelling of the hands and feet
  • anxiety
  • shock

Treatments

Anaphylaxis is a severe, potentially life threatening condition. It requires emergency treatment with an injection of epinephrine or adrenaline.

Epinephrine constricts the blood vessels, which increases blood pressure. It also relaxes the smooth muscles in the lungs and airways.

A person should contact a doctor if they experience sudden shortness of breath and dizziness.

They should seek immediate medical attention if they experience the above symptoms and:

  • have a history of heart disease or heart attack
  • lose consciousness
  • experience other symptoms, such as chest pain or numbness

People who experience high levels of stress may want to consider speaking with a doctor or a mental health specialist about possible treatment options.

Chronic stress can contribute to other long-term health complications, such as heart disease, depression, and anxiety.

Having difficulty breathing and dizziness can be scary. These symptoms often occur as a result of stress and panic attacks. Other possible causes include asthma and cardiovascular disease.

People should speak with a healthcare professional if they experience frequent or unexpected episodes of dizziness and shortness of breath.

People should seek immediate medical attention if they or someone they know exhibits the symptoms of a heart attack. Early treatment can prevent long-term complications.



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