Breathless pace

Breathlessness can be caused by exercise, but can be symptomatic of a heart attack.

Breathlessness is common — at the gym, sprinting for a bus, lugging heavy shopping bags.

When you’re under strain, like during exercise, oxygen is pumped around the body, and carbon dioxide removed more quickly, and our lungs and hearts work harder. The fitter the person, the more efficient the process. Stress and anxiety can also cause breathlessness. Knowing what’s normal is not easy.

Here are four common causes of breathlessness:


Asthma’s a common, long-term condition that affects children and adults. Inflammation of the airways leads to tightening of the chest, coughing and wheezing, and difficulty breathing, often brought on by triggers like smoke, exercise, cold air, exposure to furry animals (such as cats, dogs and horses), house dust and pollen. Having an infection, like a cold, can worsen symptoms.

Asthma attacks can be mild or serious. There is no cure but treatments can manage symptoms. “Breathlessness associated with asthma might occur during exercise, and can be difficult to distinguish,” says Dr Brian O’Connor, a consultant in respiratory medicine.

“But symptoms usually include chest pain and coughing and wheezing. Some patients complain of not being able to get enough air into their lungs... if you are worried, go and see your doctor.”


Anxiety can contribute to breathlessness. Long-term stress and anxiety impact physical health, and exacerbate breathlessness, while panic attacks — an intense burst of anxiety — can lead to sudden, rapid breathing and possible hyperventilation, often accompanied by chest pain, shaking, rapid heartbeat, dizziness and disorientation.


Sudden shortness of breath, if accompanied by chest pain radiating to the jaw, neck and arms, weakness and light-headedness and overwhelmingly anxiety, could signal a heart attack.

If you’re concerned, and have noticed that your pulse is irregular (not beating at a steady pace), see your GP. An ECG can determine abnormality, and further cardio and lung-function tests can be carried out.


Persistent breathlessness, which worsens during mild exertion, can also be a sign of lung cancer and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), which refers to conditions like chronic bronchitis and emphysema.

However, other symptoms usually present at the same time, including a persistent cough, and coughing up of phlegm and blood. Age is also an important factor, as is smoking.


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