Shortness of breath

Shortness of breath might not be anything to worry about, but sometimes it can be serious and you'll need to get medical help.

Call 999 if you're struggling to breathe or have sudden shortness of breath and:

  • your chest feels tight or heavy
  • you have pain that spreads to your arms, back, neck and jaw
  • you feel or are being sick

You could be having a heart attack or a problem with your lungs or airway. Call 999 immediately as you need immediate treatment in hospital.

See a GP if you have shortness of breath and:

  • it's lasted for longer than a month
  • it gets worse when you've been active
  • it gets worse when you lie down
  • you've been coughing for 3 weeks or more
  • you've got swollen ankles

It's important to get medical advice to make sure it's nothing serious. You're not wasting anyone's time by getting it checked out.

Causes of shortness of breath

Shortness of breath has lots of different causes.

Common causes include a cold or chest infection, being overweight, and smoking. It can also be a sign of a panic attack.

But sometimes it could be a sign of something more serious, such as a lung condition called chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) or lung cancer.

Any treatment you may need depends on what's causing your symptoms.

Don't try to self-diagnose the cause of your shortness of breath – always see a GP.

Page last reviewed: 10/10/2017
Next review due: 10/10/2020

Call 111

If you can’t speak to your GP or don’t know what to do next.