written by: Laura Latzko
• edited by: dianahardin
• updated: 5/11/2011
Shortness of breath causes people to feel as if they have to struggle to get air in and out of their lungs, and it often accompanies illnesses, such as the common cold or bronchitis. Learn more about the development of shortness of breath and respiratory infections.
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Different types of respiratory infections, including upper respiratory infections, pneumonia, acute bronchitis and chronic bronchitis, can cause patients to develop shortness of breath. Viruses or bacteria usually cause upper respiratory infections, and they can affect the sinuses, ears, throat and nose.
Bronchitis, a type of viral infection, usually impacts the functions of the bronchi, the structures that provide air to the lungs. Pneumonia is a type of viral infection that occurs within the lungs. People with respiratory infections often started out with a cold.
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Signs and Symptoms
Shortness of breath occurs when mucus or fluids block the airways of the lungs, obstructing air from reaching the lungs. When patients have pneumonia or bronchitis, they often experience shortness of breath after being active. Sometimes, shortness of breath can cause patients' chests to feel tight, which can make them feel as though they are not able to breathe, causing them to feel fearful and anxious.
When patients with pneumonia try to breathe harder to compensate for the feeling of shortness of breath, they may experience painful but short chest pains. While shortness of breath can be a symptom of a respiratory infection, more common symptoms include coughing, a runny nose, a sore throat, nasal congestion, vomiting, difficulty swallowing, headaches, a mild fever, diarrhea and tiredness.
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Respiratory infections can become dangerous, if they continue over a long period of time or occur along with severe symptoms, such as a high fever or the chills. Patients with respiratory infections may also develop more serious conditions, such as ear infections or pneumonia, if they are not treated for the initial infection. They can also develop more severe symptoms, such as shortness of breath, wheezing, swelling in the feet or ankles, blue lips or a productive cough.
Shortness of breath is not always indicative of a respiratory infection; it can be a sign that someone has asthma, lung cancer, anemia, tuberculosis, an anxiety disorder or a heart or kidney problem. Lingering chest pains along with shortness of breath can mean that a patient has a more serious condition, such as a heart problem.
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Treatment and Prevention
Doctors can effectively treat the conditions causing shortness of breath. If bacteria cause colds or pneumonia, doctors can give patients antibiotics to treat the respiratory infection. For forms of pneumonia caused by viruses, physicians sometimes give patients anti-viral medications. For the common cold, patients can take over-the-counter medications, such as acetaminophen, to reduce their symptoms. Generally, patients recover from a cold, bronchitis or pneumonia more quickly by drinking fluids and getting enough sleep.
There are ways to prevent respiratory infections, such as avoiding smoking or second-hand smoke, eating a well-balanced diet, exercising regularly and getting enough sleep each night. Vaccines are available to prevent certain viruses and bacteria, which can in turn reduce the chance of getting pneumonia or other conditions that cause shortness of breath.
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Cincinnati Children’s: Upper Respiratory Infection (URI or Common Cold)