Catch Your Breath: Dyspnea During Pregnancy

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Dyspnea is difficult or labored breathing. Also called “shortness of breath,” dyspnea can be a temporary condition due to intense exercise or physical exertion, or it can be a symptom of another—perhaps more serious—medical condition. During pregnancy, uncomfortable, labored breathing is common, and it can be simply the result of the pregnancy (and accompanying body changes itself) or due to another new or worsening condition.

What is it?

Dyspnea is essentially the feeling of not being able to take a deep breath. In serious cases, you may feel chest tightness or experience a feeling like you’re suffocating. In addition to being uncomfortable, it can limit your ability to engage in physical activity.

Dyspnea is totally understandable and expected after exercise and, in these cases, usually only lasts a few minutes. However, if your shortness of breath occurs earlier in exercise than normal or lasts a long time after you stop exercising, it could be a symptom of a more serious problem and you should seek medical attention. You should also seek medical attention if you experience shortness of breath after activities that you normally engage in without a problem or you experience shortness of breath without any explanation.

Dyspnea may be caused by several heart and lung conditions, including:

How is it treated?

Dyspnea is treated by treating its underlying cause. If shortness of breath is due to exercise, you will likely recover normal breathing in a few minutes with no additional intervention or treatment.

If poor fitness or obesity are contributing to dyspnea, weight loss and increased activity should improve your episodes of dyspnea. Speak to your doctor about starting a healthy diet and exercise routine.

If heart or lung problems are causing your shortness of breath, your doctor will monitor your symptoms and optimize treatment to improve your overall health and activity level.

What does pregnancy have to do with breathing?

Changes to the cardiovascular (heart) and pulmonary (lung) systems are common during pregnancy as the body adapts to increases in blood and fluid volumes and increased workloads.

The diaphragm (the muscle that separates the heart and lungs from the rest of your abdomen, moves up by as much as 4 cm when you are pregnant, changing the normal space you have to breath.

And, progesterone, a hormone that is essential for fetal growth and development, stimulates respiration.

And, of course, the growing baby takes up a lot of space that your lungs need!

Together, these changes can cause faster, shallower patterns of breathing during pregnancy. Some moms-to-be notice breathing changes right away, while others may not notice them until several months into the pregnancy.

If you have asthma or any type of heart or lung condition, speak to your doctor about potential pregnancy-related changes to your breathing. Your symptoms may improve, worsen, or simply change during pregnancy.

If you have any of the following symptoms along with dyspnea, seek medical attention:

  • Blue lips, fingers, or toes
  • Heart palpitations or extremely high heart rate
  • Pain when breathing
  • Shortness of breath that gets progressively worse
  • Wheezing

What if I have dyspnea during pregnancy?

If dyspnea is caused by another condition, treat that condition to improve your breathing symptoms. If dyspnea occurs without a specific cause, there are a few steps you can take while you are pregnant to make your breathing more comfortable:

  • Sit and stand with good posture to allow the baby space to move away from your diaphragm
  • Sleep with your head and neck elevated to allow gravity to pull the baby away from your diaphragm
  • Practice breathing techniques, such as those used in labor
  • Be aware of your body and rest when you need to

You may not be able to engage in the same activities at the same levels as before you were pregnant. If you are noticeably short of breath, it’s usually a sign that you need to slow down and allow your body to rest. Be mindful of your body and talk to your doctor about any changes that are unexpected or concerning. He or she will  conduct a thorough exam and medical history to rule out serious causes of dyspnea.

Jennifer Gibson
Dr. Jennifer Gibson earned a Bachelor of Science degree in Biochemistry from Clemson University and a Doctor of Pharmacy degree from the Medical College of Virginia School of Pharmacy at Virginia Commonwealth University. She trained as a hospital pharmacist and is the author of clinical textbooks, peer-reviewed journal articles, and continuing education programs for the medical community, as well as a contributor to award-winning healthcare blogs and websites. In her free time, she enjoys running, reading, traveling, and spending time with her family.

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