Harvard Health Letter

Are you short of breath?

It may be a simple case of asthma or a serious heart condition. Here's when to report it.

You take a brief walk up some stairs and find yourself straining to catch your breath. Are you developing bronchitis, or an even more serious health problem? "This sort of symptom, especially if new, is almost always of concern. It could represent serious heart or lung disease," says cardiologist Dr. Deepak Bhatt, a professor at Harvard Medical School.

Heart conditions

Breathing trouble may signal any of several cardiovascular conditions. These include heart attack, heart failure, and pulmonary embolism, which occurs when a blood clot breaks free from a vein in the legs or pelvis and lodges in the lung. "Accompanying chest pressure or pain often points to a cardiac cause. However, even in the absence of any chest pain, shortness of breath, particularly of sudden onset, can be due to heart attack or pulmonary embolism, both of which are medical emergencies. Shortness of breath due to heart failure is typically more gradual, but sometimes it just reaches a critical point where a person finally notices something is different," explains Dr. Bhatt.

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