A Functional Medicine Doctor On What Exactly Shortness Of Breath Feels Like

mindbodygreen Editorial Assistant By Sarah Regan
mindbodygreen Editorial Assistant

Sarah Regan is a writer, registered yoga instructor, and Editorial Assistant at mindbodygreen. She received her bachelor's in broadcasting and mass communication from SUNY Oswego, and lives in Brooklyn, New York.

Woman With Her Hand on Her Throat Struggling with Shortness of Breath

Image by Leandro Crespi / Stocksy

As the coronavirus affects the globe, there's a good chance many of us are hyperaware of how our bodies are feeling.

One of the main symptoms of COVID-19, along with fever and a dry cough, is shortness of breath. But what exactly does shortness of breath feel like, and how does it differ from the tight-chest sensation that can often accompany anxiety or asthma?

To find out, we spoke with physician and functional medicine practitioner Bindiya Gandhi, M.D., and she has a few key points to keep in mind if you have questions about the symptom.

What can cause shortness of breath?

Shortness of breath, according to Gandhi, is characterized by a discomfort or pain in the chest, particularly when breathing. It can make it difficult to speak, walk, and take deep breaths in and out. It can also cause rapid breathing, and in turn, a rapid heart rate.

If this sounds similar to anxiety, Gandhi notes chest pain from anxiety typically comes and goes and can be triggered by thoughts (whether that be COVID-19 stress, worrying about your loved ones, or anything else). Similarly, she adds, "It's pollen season, allergy season, right now. So patients worry because their asthma is starting to flare, or their allergies." In that case, she recommends using your inhaler to see if it improves the discomfort.

"We as physicians want to rule out something medical first," Gandhi notes. "Even though anxiety is going to be a differential on our diagnosis checklist, that's the last thing we think about."

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Questions to ask yourself.

If you're experiencing shortness of breath, Gandhi has these questions you can ask yourself to monitor your symptoms:

  1. Does it hurt to breathe?
  2. Is it painful to breathe when you take a deep breath in or out?
  3. Are you able to talk in sentences? Or talk in general?
  4. Are you breathing rapidly, almost as if you just worked out?
  5. Is walking difficult?

When to seek help.

Once you've asked yourself those questions, if you answered yes to most or all, Gandhi says that is when you should reach out to a doctor. "The biggest things being if you cannot carry on a conversation, if you're having intense chest pain, or if you have trouble even walking because your chest hurts or it's hard to breathe."

If you have asthma and you "take a couple puffs but still feel shortness of breath or you're still wheezing," that's a sign you need to seek help. Similarly, "for people that already have preexisting issues, if it's intensifying or not improving," you need to get checked out.

In closing, Gandhi emphasizes the importance of getting ahead of any illness by being proactive.

"For anybody experiencing any sort of chest discomfort or chest pain, there's tons of telemedicine doctors you can get in contact with. I would personally say, talk to one of them before you say 'this is anxiety.' I would hate for a patient to read an article and write their chest pain off as anxiety, and then it turns out to be pneumonia or whatever it is."

In times like these, it's certainly better to stay safe than sorry, and chest pain isn't something you want to second-guess. If you've been able to rule out true shortness of breath and think you need to calm down, try this 90-second anxiety exercise. If you're still concerned it's something more, reach out to a physician.

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