Respiratory Symptoms

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What are the signs of respiratory problems?

Respiratory symptoms are common symptoms of lung or heart conditions, emotions, or injury. The medical terms for respiratory symptoms include dyspnea (difficulty breathing), tachypnea (rapid breathing), hypopnea (shallow breathing), hyperpnea (deep breathing), and apnea (absence of breathing). Breathing problems may occur in conditions affecting the lungs alone or may be seen in association with more generalized conditions, such as dehydration or infections.

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD, includes emphysema and chronic bronchitis) and asthma are common causes of respiratory symptoms. Other common causes include infections, such as pneumonia or acute bronchitis. Inflammation causes respiratory symptoms, as seen in pleuritis or chronic bronchitis. Depending on the cause, respiratory symptoms may originate from one or both lungs and may be accompanied by rapid heart rate (tachycardia), low blood pressure (hypotension), or other cardiovascular signs and symptoms.

Heart conditions can lead to respiratory symptoms, especially in severe cases, such as congestive cardiac failure. Anxiety and panic attacks are common causes of respiratory symptoms and include rapid breathing that may result in hyperventilation and fainting. Airway obstruction causes respiratory symptoms that may include rapid shallow breathing. Lung injury from chest trauma can also lead to respiratory symptoms.

In some cases, respiratory symptoms can be a sign of a serious or life-threatening condition. Seek immediate medical care (call 911) for serious symptoms, such as sweating and severe difficulty breathing, severe sharp chest pain that may be combined with pale or blue lips, fast heart rate, high fever (higher than 101 degrees Fahrenheit), fainting, or change in level of consciousness or lethargy.

Seek prompt medical care if you are being treated for respiratory symptoms but mild symptoms recur or are persistent.

What other symptoms might occur with respiratory symptoms?

Respiratory symptoms may accompany other symptoms that vary depending on the underlying disease, disorder or condition. Symptoms that frequently affect the respiratory tract may also involve other body systems.

Pulmonary symptoms that may occur along with respiratory symptoms

Respiratory symptoms may accompany other symptoms affecting the respiratory system including:

  • Absence of breathing (apnea)
  • Cough that gets more severe over time
  • Coughing up blood (hemoptysis)
  • Coughing up clear, yellow, light brown, or green mucus
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Loose, wet cough that produces thick white or yellow phlegm
  • Rapid breathing (tachypnea)
  • Shortness of breath
  • Wheezing (whistling sound made with breathing)

Cardiovascular symptoms that may occur along with respiratory symptoms

Respiratory symptoms may accompany symptoms related to the cardiovascular system including:

  • Absence of heart beat (asystole)
  • Angina (chest pain due to decreased blood supply to heart muscle)
  • Chest pain or pressure
  • Irregular heart beats (arrhythmia)
  • Low heart rate (bradycardia)
  • Rapid heart rate (tachycardia)

Other symptoms that may occur along with respiratory symptoms

  • Respiratory symptoms can accompany other symptoms including:
  • Anxiety
  • Bluish lips, nails or skin
  • Enlargement of lymph nodes
  • Fever and chills
  • Runny nose (nasal congestion)
  • Sore throat
  • Sweating
  • Thickening of tissue beneath the nail beds (clubbing)

Serious symptoms that might indicate a life-threatening condition

In some cases, respiratory symptoms can be life threatening. Seek immediate medical care (call 911) if you, or someone you are with, have any of these life-threatening symptoms including:

  • Bluish lips, nails or skin
  • Confusion or loss of consciousness for even a brief moment
  • Difficulty breathing
  • High fever (higher than 101 degrees Fahrenheit)
  • Rapid breathing (tachypnea) or shortness of breath
  • Rapid heart rate (tachycardia)
  • Shallow breathing (hypopnea)
  • Wheezing (whistling sound made with breathing)

What causes respiratory symptoms?

Respiratory symptoms are common symptoms of lung and heart disease, emotions, or injury.

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD, includes emphysema and chronic bronchitis) and asthma are common causes of respiratory symptoms. Other common causes include infections, such as pneumonia or acute bronchitis. Inflammation also causes respiratory symptoms, commonly seen in pleuritis or chronic bronchitis.

Heart conditions can lead to respiratory symptoms, especially in severe cases, such as congestive cardiac failure. Anxiety and panic attacks are common causes of respiratory symptoms and include rapid breathing that may result in hyperventilation or fainting.

Pulmonary causes of respiratory symptoms

Respiratory symptoms may be caused by respiratory system disorders including:

  • Acute bronchitis

  • Asthma or allergies

  • Bronchiectasis (widening of the airways)

  • Bronchiolitis (inflammation of the small airways) or bronchitis

  • Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD, includes emphysema and chronic bronchitis)

  • Decreased inspired oxygen levels from high altitude

  • Lung cancer or metastatic tumors

  • Pulmonary aspiration (inhaling blood, vomited material or other substances into lungs)

  • Pulmonary hypertension (high blood pressure in the arteries of the lungs)

  • Respiratory infections, such as cold or flu

  • Tuberculosis (serious infection affecting the lungs and other organs)

Cardiovascular system causes of respiratory symptoms

Respiratory symptoms can also be caused by cardiovascular system disorders including:

Emotional causes of respiratory symptoms

Respiratory symptoms can also be caused by emotional disorders including:

Serious or life-threatening causes of respiratory symptoms

In some cases, respiratory symptoms may be a symptom of a serious or life-threatening condition that should be immediately evaluated in an emergency setting. These include:

  • Alcohol or drug overdose

  • Anaphylaxis (life-threatening allergic reaction)

  • Chest trauma

  • Choking on a foreign object in your airway

  • Epiglottitis (life-threatening inflammation and swelling of the epiglottis, a tissue flap between the tongue and windpipe)

  • Myocardial infarction (heart attack)

  • Pneumonia

  • Pneumothorax (collapsed lung)

  • Pulmonary embolism (blockage of a pulmonary artery due to blood clot)

Questions for diagnosing the cause of respiratory symptoms

To diagnose your condition, your doctor or licensed health care practitioner will ask you several questions related to your respiratory symptoms including:

  • When did you first notice your respiratory symptoms?

  • When do you feel respiratory symptoms?

  • Do you have any other symptoms?

  • What medications are you taking?

  • Do you have any allergies?

What are the potential complications of respiratory symptoms?

Because respiratory symptoms can be due to serious diseases, failure to seek treatment can result in serious complications and permanent damage. Once the underlying cause is diagnosed, it is important for you to follow the treatment plan that you and your health care professional design specifically for you to reduce the risk of potential complications including:

  • Heart failure

  • Myocardial infarction (heart attack)

  • Organ failure or dysfunction

  • Respiratory failure and respiratory arrest

  • Spread of cancer

  • Spread of infection

  • Stroke

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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2021 Jan 7
THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.
  1. Shortness of breath. FamilyDoctor.org. http://familydoctor.org/familydoctor/en/health-tools/search-by-symptom/shortness-of-breath.html.
  2. Breathing problems. Medline Plus, a service of the National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health. http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/breathingproblems.html.
  3. Domino FJ (Ed.) Five Minute Clinical Consult. Philadelphia: Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, 2013.
  4. Parshall MB, Schwartzstein RM, Adams L, et al. An official American Thoracic Society statement: update on the mechanisms, assessment, and management of dyspnea. Am J Respir Crit Care Med 2012; 185:435.
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