Hands clutching a chest with lungs highlighted with a bandaid.

Why Are You Short of Breath? What a Respiratory Therapist Needs to Know

Last updated: March 2024

I work in a hospital as a respiratory therapist. I take care of anyone who is short of breath. If you come to the hospital experiencing severe shortness of breath, it is my job, along with that of the doctors and nurses, to get you feeling better. To best treat you, we first have to know why you are short of breath.

There are several things that may cause you to become short of breath, such as:1

  • Asthma – This is treated with rescue medicine and steroids
  • Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) – This is treated with rescue medicine and steroids, and sometimes BiPAP.
  • Pneumonia – This is treated with antibiotics and other medicines as needed
  • Heart failure – This is treated with diuretics and other heart medicines
  • Other – These causes may include cystic fibrosis, bronchiectasis, kidney failure, etc

This or That

Do you need help managing shortness of breath?

So, why are you short of breath?

As you can see, the cause of your symptoms often determines the course of treatment. If we know you have asthma, we can treat you with asthma medicine. If we know you have COPD, we can treat you with COPD treatments. This is why it is important for us to know your history. But sometimes we do not know. So, what do we do then? How do we treat you?

We often have to make educated guesses. This is important, as we want to start treatment as soon as possible. We don’t want you to have to wait for test results to come back, as that can take some time.

If we don’t know why you are short of breath, it’s possible to treat you for multiple conditions. The doctor may tell me to give you a breathing treatment, while the nurse starts you on diuretics, antibiotics, and steroids.

Interestingly, asthma, COPD, pneumonia, and heart failure can all cause bronchospasm. This is when your air passages become narrow and obstructed, which may cause shortness of breath. Bronchospasm is treated with the asthma medicine albuterol. I can give you this medicine as soon as you walk into the ER. It is given via a nebulizer breathing treatment, and it usually works pretty quickly. If this is what is causing your symptoms, great! We fixed you up fast.2

But, say you are experiencing pneumonia or heart failure. How do we know? I may listen to your lung sounds. This can help me “guess” if you are experiencing pneumonia or heart failure. I have personally been working in an ER for 25 years, so I am pretty good at guessing. I imagine many of my fellow nurses and doctors are the same way.

What if you have COPD? A COPD flare-up can be caused by the COPD itself, but it can also be caused by pneumonia. It may also be caused by heart failure. So again, we may treat you for all these conditions, and this will probably begin with a breathing treatment.1

Are your lungs filled with fluid? Do you have foot and ankle edema? Do you have trouble breathing while lying on your back? Do you need to be sitting up tall to breathe? Are your oxygen levels low? Have you gained weight recently? These are all signs you may be retaining fluid. These are all things we can check for quickly. They are also signs you have heart failure and should be treated for that.3

So, if a doctor doesn’t know why you are short of breath, a breathing treatment will usually be ordered right away. And then, if heart failure is suspected, the doctor will likely order a diuretic to make you pee, such as Lasix® (furosemide) or Bumex® (bumetanide). This medicine usually takes a while to take effect. In the meantime, other efforts will be used to help you breathe easier. More breathing treatments are always an option.3

This is where my BiPAP machines come in handy. (I've previously written about how BiPAP can help with heart failure flare-ups.) A mask will be placed over your mouth and nose. The machine offers soft pressures to help you breathe more easily. These devices work great for taking the edge off of the feeling of shortness of breath. Once the medicine takes effect, your breathing gets better, and we can take you off the machine.4

We can help you breathe easier

As I described here, we use our skills to make an educated guess about your condition. Sometimes we don't know, but we don't waste any time starting treatment. Labs will be drawn, and a chest X-ray and other tests will probably be ordered. The ER doctor will eventually determine what is causing your shortness of breath, and at that point, the treatment will be adjusted accordingly.

We can usually reverse shortness of breath. We can get you feeling better. Sometimes we can get you feeling better fast, and sometimes it takes a little longer. But, we can get you breathing easier. This is one of the joys of my job: using my skills and knowledge to help people feel better.

Do you experience being short of breath? Have you worked with a respiratory therapist during your heart failure journey? Click the button below to share with our community!

By providing your email address, you are agreeing to our privacy policy.

This article represents the opinions, thoughts, and experiences of the author; none of this content has been paid for by any advertiser. The Heart-Failure.net team does not recommend or endorse any products or treatments discussed herein. Learn more about how we maintain editorial integrity here.

Join the conversation

Please read our rules before commenting.