Suddenly experiencing unexplained “shortness of breath” is frightening.

But you need to know that there is a big difference between being short of breath, and having mechanical difficulty getting air down your airway or out when exhaling (“trouble breathing”).

People interchange these two terms all the time, but the experience is very unsettling nonetheless.

Heart Disease vs. Cancer As Cause of Feeling Short of Breath

 “Shortness of breath denotes a feeling of insufficient air intake disproportionate with the physical activity,” says Morton Tavel, MD, Clinical Professor Emeritus of Medicine, Indiana University School of Medicine, and author of “Health Tips, Myths and Tricks: A Physician’s Advice.”

For instance, if you run up four flights of stairs, you’re bound to feel short of breath; you will be breathing heavily and faster than usual – but there should not be any problems with the mechanics of inhaling and exhaling.

You’re simply out of breath or “winded.” (More aerobic exercise can solve this problem.)

But a disproportionate feeling of insufficient air intake could be, for example, having to pant to catch your breath when all you did was hurry from one room in the house to the other.

This panting occurs in very out of shape people who are otherwise free of disease. But it also occurs as a result of disease.

“It is a symptom resulting from a wide variety of disorders, often involving lung or heart diseases, but extending far beyond those to include anemia or even psychological disorders,” explains Dr. Tavel.

“Heart disorders cause shortness of breath only when the heart function is decreased to the extent that blood pools in the lungs behind the poorly pumping heart.

“Cancer, on the other hand, generally causes shortness of breath only when directly invading the lungs, or more rarely, when producing severe anemia.

“This breathing problem is less common than that associated with heart failure.”

Dr. Tavel’s medical research includes over 125 publications, editorials and book reviews in peer-reviewed national medical journals. He was formerly director of the cardiac rehabilitation program at St. Vincent Hospital in Indiana.
Lorra Garrick has been covering medical, fitness and cybersecurity topics for many years, having written thousands of articles for print magazines and websites, including as a ghostwriter. She’s also a former ACE-certified personal trainer.


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