Lung and Respiratory Health: Reasons You’re Short of Breath

health, May 2019

Reviewed By: Louise Chang, MD Medicinenet.coms


Asthma narrows airways.

Your airways suddenly narrow and swell. You may struggle for air, cough up mucus, or hear whistling when you breathe.

It’s not clear why this happens to some people, but lots of things could trigger an attack, including pollen, dust, smoke, exercise, freezing air, a cold, and stress.

Your doctor can help you figure outwhat causes yours. They might prescribe medication for you to inhale during an attack to help you breathe more easily.

Allergies irritate airways and may trigger asthma.

Pollen, dust, pet dander, and other things you breathe in can cause allergies.

Sometimes the allergic reaction causes asthma. But it’s not always something in the air. It could start with something you touch, or some food you eat.

Talk with your doctor about how best to manage your asthma and allergies. Make sure to check in when your symptoms change, too.

Anxiety may affect your lungs and cause symptoms.

You may breathe harder when you’re scared or worried. It’s usually not a big deal, but it can be serious if you already have lung problems like COPD. Sudden stress, like a car accident, could trigger an attack if you have asthma.

Even if you’re otherwise healthy, anxiety might cause you to breathe fast enough to get lightheaded and pass out.

Breathing carbon monoxide can make you short of breath.

It’s a colorless, odorless gas that can come from furnaces, fireplaces, water heaters, dryers, and car fumes. If it isn’t sent out the right way, it can build up in the air, and you could breathe too much of it. That makes it hard for your red blood cells to send oxygen through your body.

You may be short of breath, dizzy, confused, weak, and nauseated. Your vision could blur, and you could pass out. It could be life-threatening.

The cold virus can affect the airways.

It happens thanks to a virus that causes a runny nose, sneezing, and sometimes fever. It may irritate your lungs and airway, and bring a cough that can make it hard to breathe.

There’s no cure, but it usually gets better on its own in a week or so. See your doctor if you have a fever higher than 102 F, if you’re wheezing, or if it’s hard to catch your breath.

A pulmonary embolism may lead to life-threatening lung problems.

A blockage, or clot, often in your
leg, breaks loose, and a piece goes to
your lung and blocks blood flow. That
can make it hard or painful to breathe.
You could feel faint, and your heart
might race. Some people cough up
blood. You may have swelling,
warmth, and soreness where the clot
started.

If any of this happens to you, get to
the hospital, as it can be life-threatening.
Your doctor may use blood thinners,
other drugs, or surgery.

Sleep apnea causes pauses in breathing.

It’s a condition when breathing stops
repeatedly during sleep, so a person
may not realize anything is happening.
But you might be tired, groggy, and
moody the next day. It could lead to
high blood pressure and make you
more likely to have heart disease and a
stroke.

Extra weight is a risk. It may help to
lose weight, but not all people with
sleep apnea are overweight.
Pneumonia causes fluid build-up in
the lungs.

A virus, bacteria, or fungus infects
the air sacs inside your lungs. Then
those sacs fill with fluid. This makes it
harder to breathe. You also could have
chills and fever, and you might cough
up a thick, colored mucus.

Check in regularly with your doctor.
They might prescribe antibiotics if
your pneumonia is caused by bacteria.
Other types are harder to treat, but rest,
fluids, and over-the-counter meds can
make you feel better.

Yet those forces may prevail all the same.

If you want to understand what’s happening to our country, the book you really need to read is “How Democracies Die,” by Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt. As the authors — professors of government at Harvard — point out, in recent decades a number of nominally democratic nations have become de facto authoritarian, one-party states. Yet none of them have had classic military coups, with tanks in the street.

What we’ve seen instead are coups of a subtler form: takeovers or intimidation of the news media, rigged elections that disenfranchise opposing voters, new rules of the game that give the ruling party overwhelming control even if it loses the popular vote, corrupted courts.

The classic example is Hungary, where Fidesz, the white nationalist governing party, has effectively taken over the bulk of the media; destroyed the independence of the judiciary; rigged voting to enfranchise supporters and disenfranchise opponents; gerrymandered electoral districts in its favor; and altered the rules so that a minority in the popular vote translates into a supermajority in the legislature.

Does a lot of this sound familiar? It should. You see, Republicans have been adopting similar tactics — not at the federal level (yet), but in states they control.

As Levitsky and Ziblatt say, the states, which Justice Louis Brandeis famously pronounced the laboratories of democracy, “are in danger of becoming laboratories of authoritarianism as those in power rewrite electoral rules, redraw constituencies and even rescind voting rights to ensure that they do not lose.”

Thus, voter purges and deliberate restriction of minority access to the polls have become standard practice in much of America. Would Brian Kemp, the governor-elect of Georgia — who oversaw his own election as secretary of state — have won without these tactics? Almost certainly not.

And the G.O.P. has engaged in extreme gerrymandering. Some people have been reassured by the fact that the Democratic landslide in the popular vote for the House did, in fact, translate into a comparable majority in seats held. But you get a lot less reassured if you look at what happened at the state level, where votes often weren’t reflected in terms of control of state legislatures.

Let’s talk, in particular, about what’s happening in Wisconsin.

There has been a fair amount of reporting on the power grab currently underway in Madison. Having lost every statewide office in Wisconsin last month, Republicans are using the lame-duck legislative session to drastically curtail these offices’ power, effectively keeping rule over the state in the hands of the G.O.P.-controlled Legislature.

What has gotten less emphasis is the fact that G.O.P. legislative control is also undemocratic. Last month Democratic candidates received 54 percent of the votes in State Assembly elections — but they ended up with only 37 percent of the seats.

In other words, Wisconsin is turning into Hungary on the Great Lakes, a state that may hold elections, but where elections don’t matter, because the ruling party retains control no matter what voters do.

And here’s the thing: As far as I can tell, not a single prominent Republican in Washington has condemned the power grab in Wisconsin, the similar grab in Michigan, or even what looks like outright electoral fraud in North Carolina. Elected Republicans don’t just increasingly share the values of white nationalist parties like Fidesz or Poland’s Law and Justice; they also share those parties’ contempt for democracy. The G.O.P. is an authoritarian party in waiting.

Which is why we should be grateful for Trump. If he weren’t so flamboyantly awful, Democrats might have won the House popular vote by only 4 or 5 points, not 8.6 points. And in that case, Republicans might have maintained control — and we’d be well along the path to permanent one-party rule. Instead, we’re heading for a period of divided government, in which the opposition party has both the power to block legislation and, perhaps even more important, the ability to conduct investigations backed by subpoena power into Trump administration malfeasance.

But this may be no more than a respite. For whatever may happen to Donald Trump, his party has turned its back on democracy. And that should terrify you.

The fact is that the G.O.P., as currently constituted, is willing to do whatever it takes to seize and hold power. And as long as that remains true, and Republicans remain politically competitive, we will be one election away from losing democracy in America.