By Korin Miller
You might feel shortness of breath in a number of situations, like when you go all-out in a high-intensity interval training class or when you’re rushing to work after you hit snooze too many times. But it can be jarring to feel shortness of breath when doing something as simple as climbing a flight of stairs.
Dyspnea is the medical term for shortness of breath, and it basically feels like you have an intense tightening in your chest, need more air, or even as though you’re suffocating, according to the Mayo Clinic. There are plenty of reasons why you might experience this potentially scary difficulty breathing, some more serious than others.
Although you usually do it without even thinking, breathing is a pretty complex process.
Various receptors in your lungs, airways, blood vessels, muscles, and brain use sensory input to adjust how you’re breathing based on what your body needs, according to the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI).
So, let’s say you have asthma. This condition can make your airways narrow, swell, and produce too much mucus, according to the Mayo Clinic. In that case, your body’s sensors will detect that you’re not getting enough oxygen and sound the alarm. “That gives you the sensation that you’re…requiring more effort to get in air,” Emily Pennington, M.D., a pulmonologist at the Cleveland Clinic, tells SELF.
Feeling out of breath is always good to take note of, but it doesn’t necessarily signal a huge problem. Sometimes, it’s just because you’re doing something your body isn’t used to.
Trouble breathing when doing something like climbing a flight of stairs is worth side-eyeing, Sadia Benzaquen, M.D., a pulmonologist and associate professor in the department of internal medicine at the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine, tells SELF, but it’s not necessarily a huge deal.
If you live in a ground-floor apartment and don’t use stairs regularly, it’s not unusual to feel a little winded when you have to tackle a flight. “In general, if you’re deconditioned, you might have a little shortness of breath when you climb stairs,” Dr. Benzaquen says.
If you’re out of breath with pretty low-intensity movements, young, otherwise healthy, and can’t remember the last time you worked out, exercising more regularly will probably help, Dr. Benzaquen says. This will make your muscles more efficient, so they’ll need less oxygen to do their job and also produce less carbon dioxide as a result. The overall effect is that you’ll need less air as you exercise. “Before you start exercising, it’s not a bad idea to go to your primary care physician to make sure your heart and lungs are fine,” Dr. Benzaquen says. “Then, go ahead and go to the gym.”
But context is everything. If you work out regularly and find that you’re getting out of breath when you climb stairs that you hit up every day, that’s concerning. “It’s not normal if you notice that something that didn’t used to make you feel short of breath is now bothering you,” Dr. Pennington says. Also, if you’re suddenly getting out of breath when you do even less intense things than climbing stairs, like taking a shower or getting the mail, you really need to call your doctor, Dr. Benzaquen says. “If you’re a young, healthy adult, you shouldn’t [have trouble breathing] doing normal activities,” Dr. Benzaquen says.
There are a bunch of health conditions that can cause serious breathing issues, so it’s always good to see a doctor if you’re at all concerned.
Some, like asthma, you may already know you have. But other serious causes include pneumonia, carbon monoxide poisoning, heart attack, heart failure, a pulmonary embolism, a collapsed lung, or lung disease, according to the Mayo Clinic.
The mechanism behind shortness of breath is a little different for each of these conditions, depending on which parts (and therefore sensors) in your body are involved. They also each come with various other symptoms, so it’s not like just experiencing shortness of breath while climbing the stairs automatically means something dire about your health. But given how serious these conditions can be, it’s important to get abnormal shortness of breath checked out ASAP, Dr. Pennington says. Whether or not excessive shortness of breath is your only symptom, if you’re really having trouble breathing, head to the emergency room.
The steps your doctor takes will ultimately depend on what other symptoms you’re experiencing, if any, and what health conditions they suspect you might have, Dr. Benzaquen says. If you’re having an asthma attack, for example, they may use a nebulizer to turn medications into a mist you can breathe, or give you drugs like corticosteroids to reduce inflammation in your airways, according to the Mayo Clinic.
Whatever the root cause of your breathing issues may be, the sooner you see a doctor, the sooner you’ll be able to breathe a sigh of relief, both literally and figuratively.