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Shortness of Breath and Heart Disease

Updated on August 18, 2022
Article written by
Victoria Menard

How Others Experience It | Causes | Management | Get Support

Heart disease refers to a group of many different conditions that affect the cardiovascular system (the heart and blood vessels). Different types of heart disease include heart valve disease, coronary artery disease, hypertension (high blood pressure), heart failure, and more. No matter which heart condition you have, shortness of breath is usually an issue when living with heart disease. In fact, members of MyHeartDiseaseTeam often describe shortness of breath as one of their most common — and most frustrating — symptoms.

“I have shortness of breath,” wrote one member. “Very annoying. Walking upstairs, going for walks, doing the dishes, anything physical. Has been going on for a very long time.” Another member shared, “I get short of breath if I bend over to take off my shoes and sit back up again.”

If you have trouble with shortness of breath, you’re not alone. Here’s what you need to know about shortness of breath in heart disease, including what it feels like, what causes it, and how it can be managed. You and your cardiologist can work together to identify the cause of shortness of breath and find the best way of reducing its impact on your overall well-being and quality of life.

How Do People With Heart Disease Experience Shortness of Breath?

Many MyHeartDiseaseTeam members have described what it feels like to have shortness of breath. Shortness of breath can be a difficult symptom to live with alongside other symptoms of heart failure and heart disease, like chest pain, arrhythmias (abnormalities in the heart rhythm), and heart palpitations (abnormal sensation of your heart beating, such as extremely quickly or irregularly).

Some members have expressed frustration at dealing with the symptom, despite working with their cardiology team to treat their heart disease: “I have been on diuretics, beta-blockers, and other blood pressure meds, but I still have shortness of breath when I walk more than 50 feet,” one member shared.

Another member responded, saying, “I have shortness of breath and am taking similar medications. I was told after my heart catheterizations that I just needed medication. That didn’t help.”

Others feel that shortness of breath is just one aspect of living with heart disease that they work to manage in their daily lives. “I would rather have that than angina (chest pain),” wrote one member. “Just a part of heart disease. Sometimes, you just have to slow down. I get on the treadmill to increase stamina.”

Shortness of breath in heart disease may feel different for different people. As one of the above members described, “My type of shortness of breath is I am unable to take a deep breath when I want to. It just happens when it wants to.”

Another wrote that despite several treatments following a heart attack, they are “still out of breath, sometimes even when just sitting!”

Some members have also found that certain factors can worsen or improve shortness of breath. “I, too, have issues with shortness of breath,” wrote one member. “Some days are better than others. It seems to be worse when I have too much sodium.”

Others experience shortness of breath as a constant part of life, like one member who responded, “I’m starting to think shortness of breath will be my new normal.”

For some members, taking a positive, day-at-a-time approach to living with heart disease helps them deal with the frustrations of symptoms like shortness of breath. “My breathing might be shot, I may not be as mobile as I was, but today, our grandsons are coming over, and how bad is life when you are still around to see them growing up? I’ll suck it up, take a deep breath when I can, and keep living. Because the alternative is so much more no fun!”

Another member agreed: “It is frustrating to be short of breath a lot — makes it hard to do things. Sometimes, we just have to try and push through the shortness of breath, hoping it will eventually get better as we push ourselves to exercise however we’re able.”

What Causes Shortness of Breath in Heart Disease?

There are several potential causes of shortness of breath in heart disease. It is a common symptom of the disease itself, but it may also occur as a side effect of heart disease treatments or as the result of related health conditions.

Lack of Sufficient Blood Flow

Many members of MyHeartDiseaseTeam experience shortness of breath as a direct symptom of heart disease. In heart failure, an advanced form of heart disease, the heart can no longer pump blood effectively to supply the body with enough oxygen. This can cause you to experience feelings of breathlessness.

Some MyHeartDiseaseTeam members notice worsening shortness of breath when their doctor measures a lower ejection fraction (the percentage of blood that is pumped out of the heart with each contraction). “Had an angiogram in November, and my heart muscle is only operating at 35 percent,” said one member. “Very good indication of why I have shortness of breath.”

Respiratory Conditions

Respiratory conditions, such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), are common among people with heart disease. Those who live with both heart disease and a lung condition may be even more likely to experience shortness of breath. “I have COPD and congestive heart failure. And today, I feel like someone is sitting on my chest, like it feels thick. Hard to get a clean, easy breath,” described one member.

Another member with COPD shared that they developed shortness of breath after coming down with an infection. Another wrote that they have shortness of breath “because of chronic heart failure, asthma, mitral valve prolapse, and smoking. I must quit smoking now.”

Treatments for Heart Disease

Some MyHeartDiseaseTeam members associate shortness of breath with certain treatments for heart disease. “I get short of breath sometimes just while walking,” wrote one member.

Another member wrote that they were “put on Brilinta after having a heart attack. The doctor said shortness of breath was a side effect. He put me on Xanax, as the shortness of breath was giving me terrible anxiety. I still get it, but I’m able to handle it.”

In addition to these medications, beta-blockers — a class of drugs commonly prescribed for heart disease — sometimes list shortness of breath as a potential side effect.

Managing Shortness of Breath: Tips for Breathing Easier

If you’re experiencing shortness of breath, talk to your doctor. Your cardiology team can work with you to find the best way of treating your heart disease while reducing symptoms and side effects like shortness of breath.

Treat Your Heart Disease

When shortness of breath is the result of heart disease itself, treating the underlying cause may help manage your shortness of breath. As one member wrote, “All the shortness of breath is gone after mitral valve replacement and triple bypass.”

Stay Active

Shortness of breath sometimes makes exercise more difficult. As one member wrote, “I haven't been able to walk more than 15 minutes without getting extremely breathless for months.”

However, exercise is an important part of managing shortness of breath. In fact, getting physical activity can help improve lung function and shortness of breath. MyHeartDiseaseTeam members have shared their recommendations for exercising while dealing with shortness of breath. One wrote that slowing down their walking speed has helped: “Instead of my usual breakneck speed, I walked at a slow, easy pace. I managed 25 minutes!!!!”

Another wrote, “I been doing restorative yoga with simple stretching, which has been extremely helpful.”

Being overweight or obese are also risk factors for shortness of breath. Getting enough physical activity may help you attain or maintain a healthy weight, reducing the stress on your heart and improving shortness of breath.

If you’re unsure about what type or level of physical activity is right for you, talk to your doctor. They may refer you to a specialist, such as a physical therapist with experience treating people with heart disease, to come up with a tailored exercise regimen.

Quit Smoking

Smoking is a known cause of shortness of breath. It can also lead to respiratory conditions that cause shortness of breath, such as COPD. On top of heart disease, smoking can make this symptom even worse.

If you smoke, quitting — or even reducing the amount you smoke — can help improve shortness of breath. If you are unsure where to start, ask your cardiologist or a health care provider for smoking cessation tips or plans.

Cardiac Rehabilitation

Cardiac rehabilitation is a program that helps improve your function despite heart disease. It can include educational components, exercise plans and training, and counseling to help improve stress (which can put additional strain on the heart). As one MyHeartDiseaseTeam member wrote, “Rehab will put you on the road to recovery. Keep at it. 👍”

Find Your Team

Are you or a loved one living with heart disease? Consider joining MyHeartDiseaseTeam today. Here, on the online social support network for more than 51,000 people living with heart disease, shortness of breath is a frequent topic of conversation. On MyHeartDiseaseTeam, you can share your story, ask and answer questions, and join ongoing conversations. Soon, you’ll have a team of members from around the world who understand life with heart disease.

How do you cope with shortness of breath? Have you found anything that helps? Share your thoughts or tips in the comments below or by posting on MyHeartDiseaseTeam.

All updates must be accompanied by text or a picture.
Larry A. Weinrauch, MD, FACC, FACP, FAHA is an assistant professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School with a focus on cardiovascular disease and clinical outcomes research. Review provided by VeriMed Healthcare Network. Learn more about him here.
Victoria Menard is a writer at MyHealthTeam. Learn more about her here.

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