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What Does It Mean If I’m Experiencing Shortness Of Breath?

Most people have experienced temporary bouts of breathlessness after strenuous exercise, a rush of adrenaline, walking or hiking at a high elevation, or watching the key scene in a scary movie, but real shortness of breath can point to some very serious health conditions.

In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, you (like the rest of the world) are on high alert for the classic symptoms of the virus. And knowing that shortness of breath is one of them, you’re rightly concerned about what it might mean.

Here at in Atlanta, Georgia, we understand that you have questions about the symptoms you’re experiencing, and maybe a bit of fear. That’s why we offer drive-through testing so you can find out if your shortness of breath is due to COVID-19 or something else.

Your test result comes back in about two days. If it’s positive, we can help you navigate the next steps, including when and how to seek medical care and how to self-quarantine.

If your COVID-19 test is negative, and you’re still experiencing shortness of breath, there are several possible reasons, and some may warrant medical attention.

Understanding the breathing process

At the most basic level, breathing is simply the process of exchanging one gas (oxygen) for another (carbon dioxide). Of course, the procedure involves multiple organs and body parts in a very complex system, and any trouble that occurs anywhere along the chain of events can lead to shortness of breath.

Simply put, breathing involves two phases: inhaling and exhaling. During inhalation, your rib muscles contract and push upward, your diaphragm contracts and pushes downward, your thoracic cavity expands, and air rushes in. When you exhale, your diaphragm and muscles relax, decreasing pressure in your thoracic cavity, and air rushes out. When the system fails, you have trouble breathing.

Shortness of breath can also occur if your heart isn’t functioning properly. Your heart and lungs work in tandem to bring in oxygen and send carbon dioxide out. 

If it’s not COVID-19, why do I have shortness of breath?

Acute (sudden) shortness of breath that has you desperately gasping for air may indicate a medical emergency such as:
  • A severe allergic reaction (anaphylaxis)
  • Heart problems: heart attack, arrhythmia, heart failure
  • Choking
  • Asthma
  • Pneumonia
  • Carbon monoxide poisoning
  • A collapsed lung
  • A blood clot
n any of these instances, call 911 immediately. Ongoing, or chronic, conditions can also lead to shortness of breath. While they may not constitute an urgent medical emergency, these conditions do require medical care.

Chronic heart conditions that cause shortness of breath

  • Inflammation around the heart (pericarditis)
  • Heart muscle problems (cardiomyopathy)
  • Heart failure

Chronic lung conditions that cause shortness of breath

  • Tuberculosis
  • Pleurisy
  • Croup
  • Pulmonary edema, fibrosis, or hypertension
  • Lung cancer

Aside from these serious illnesses, your shortness of breath may stem from conditions completely unrelated to your heart and lungs, such as a broken rib, a swollen epiglottis, anemia, or even acute anxiety (panic attack). 

Don’t assume that shortness of breath means you have COVID-19, because clearly there are numerous other possibilities for the symptom, but do assume you need to talk with a doctor about what’s causing your lack of oxygen. 

Accepting patients in the Metro Atlanta area. We offer quick, effecient testing, vaccinations and sick visits. Walk in or Drive Thru with no wait. Book your appointment online today! 

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