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Shortness of Breath During Pregnancy

written by: Diana Cooper • edited by: Diana Cooper • updated: 6/29/2011

Learn why women become short of breath when pregnant. Learn what you can do to help prevent shortness of breath during pregnancy and know when it should be a concern.

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    Shortness of Breath During Pregnancy

    Causes

    When a woman becomes pregnant, her need for oxygen increases. The body adapts to this need by increasing a hormone, progesterone, that stimulates the respiratory center in the brain to breathe more often and to breathe in more deeply. This can feel like shortness of breath.

    As the pregnancy progresses, the uterus rises into the abdomen and causes pressure on the diaphragm (a major muscle, between the chest and the abdomen, used for breathing). This causes a woman to become short of breath because the lungs have a hard time expanding to its full capacity. This worsens in the last trimester as the enlarged uterus presses directly on the diaphragm. Women with multiple gestations are especially at risk of labored breathing.

    Most women who are having their first baby (primigravidas) experience lightening 2-3 weeks before the onset of labor. This is when the fetus and uterus move down in the pelvis to prepare for birth. The woman is now able to breathe more easily because the uterus is no longer pressing hard against the diaphragm.

    Women who have already given birth normally don't experience lightening until the time of labor so they will have shortness of breath until the end of their pregnancy. It is believed primigravidas go through this earlier because of increased intensity of Braxton Hicks contractions.

    Shortness of breath during pregnancy can feel uncomfortable but it is generally harmless and does not affect the fetus.

    Tips on Relieving Shortness of Breath

    Sit up straight and use proper posture when standing. This relieves pressure against the diaphragm and gives the lungs more room to expand.

    Don't overdo it. You don't have to stop your daily activities or exercising, just don't push yourself too hard. Slow down, take your time, and rest when you can.

    Eat healthy to maintain an appropriate weight gain. Excess weight can worsen shortness of breath.

    Prevent dehydration by drinking adequate amounts of water and by avoiding drinks that contain caffeine.

    For temporary relief, lift your arms over your head. This will take some pressure off the diaphragm.

    When lying down, lie on your side (preferably on your left side) and prop yourself up with pillows.

    When to be Concerned

    Although shortness of breath during pregnancy is common, it can be caused by a serious problem. Seek medical attention immediately if your shortness of breath is severe or comes on suddenly or if you experience any of the following symptoms:

    • increased heart rate
    • heart palpitations
    • dizziness
    • chest pain
    • blueness around your lips, fingers, or toes
    • paleness
    • fever or chills
    • persistent cough or coughing up blood
    • sense of apprehension (like you are not getting enough oxygen).
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