Can't Take a Deep Breath

Without breath, we cannot have life. Breathing brings oxygen into the body and all of our organs and tissues. When you can't take deep breaths, it can cause anxiety or the feeling of not having enough air. This is known as "air hunger" and is frightening. Our body naturally compensates with yawns or sighs, but this isn't always effective in relieving the need for more air.

Not being able to take a deep breath is usually related to chronic health conditions or temporary illness. There are things you can do to help and treatments from your doctor if home remedies don't work.

What does It Mean If You Can't Take a Deep Breath?

When you can't take deep breaths, it could just mean you have a simple respiratory issue or even anxiety. Not being able to completely fill your lungs with air is also known as shortness of breath or dyspnea. Some of the more common causes include:

1. Pneumonia

Pneumonia is a type of lung infection caused by fluid, bacteria, or viruses in your lungs. It is most common in young babies, and older adults; but anyone can get pneumonia. It can cause severe trouble taking a deep breath and can last for weeks. Some people need to be hospitalized with pneumonia for oxygen and breathing treatments, along with antibiotics.

More Symptoms

  • Severe coughing
  • Mucus
  • Pain when coughing
  • Chills
  • Fever
  • Fatigue
  • Diarrhea
  • Feeling confused or delirious

2. Anxiety

Anxiety attacks are pretty harmless and a result of the body's "fight or flight" mechanism being activated. They can come on suddenly for no apparent reason and make you feel like you can't breathe and like you are in some sort of danger.

More Symptoms

  • Fast heart rate
  • Feeling of dread or fear
  • Feeling like you can't take a deep breath
  • Nausea
  • Urge to urinate or move bowels
  • Feeling like you need to "get out" or escape certain situations
  • Tingling in the arms and legs

3. Obesity

If you're overweight, the abdomen can push up into the lung space and make it hard to take a deep breath. Obesity can also put you at higher risk for respiratory diseases like asthma, congestive heart failure, and emphysema.


  • BMI over 25
  • Feeling "winded" with physical activity
  • Joint pain
  • Back pain
  • Clothes becoming "too tight"

4. COPD (Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease)

If you have bronchitis over a long period of time due to smoking, untreated asthma, allergies, or pollution, it can turn into COPD. Any of these and other factors can damage the tiny air sacs and capillaries that help oxygenate the blood. The air sacs develop chronic inflammation and your body gets less oxygen. Damage or stiffening of the air sacs can also make you feel like you can't fill your lungs with air.


  • Chronic cough
  • Excessive mucus
  • Tight feeling in chest
  • Shortness of breath
  • Air hunger
  • Blue lips and fingers
  • Confusion

5. Asthma

An asthma attack occurs when your lungs are easily irritated by allergens, smoke, or pollution. The airways suddenly constrict and tighten up so air cannot get into the lungs. This may make your chest feel very tight and you cannot get them open. Some people say it feels like "an elephant on their chest."


  • Wheezing
  • Shortness of breath
  • Coughing (barking or dry sounding)
  • Heavy feeling in chest
  • Fast heart beat
  • Anxiety
  • Frequent episodes of bronchitis

6. Blood Clot in the Lungs

A blood clot in the lungs is also called a pulmonary embolism. This happens when a blood clot in your legs or other part of your body breaks free and travels into your lungs. This blocks air flow into the lungs and can make you feel like you can't take a deep breath. This is a serious medical emergency and needs immediate medical attention.


  • Worsening shortness of breath with movement or walking
  • Severe chest pain
  • Productive cough, sometimes with blood
  • Feeling dizzy
  • Fever
  • Fast heart rate
  • Bluish skin
  • Cold sweats

Some people experience only a few symptoms, but others experience all of them. If you have any symptoms of a blood clot in your lungs call 9-1-1 or have someone get you to your nearest emergency room.

7. Heart Attack

A heart attack occurs when one of the blood vessels that feeds oxygenated blood to the heart gets blocked. This is usually the result of heart disease and built-up plaque in the blood vessels. One of the first signs of a heart attack is chest tightening and a crushing feeling in the chest.

More Symptoms

  • Shortness of breath or feeling like you can't get enough air
  • Chest pain that radiates to the arm or jaw
  • Crushing feeling in the chest
  • Feeling dizzy
  • Cold sweats

What Can Be Done?

Things like a mild respiratory infection, overeating, or an anxiety attack can easily be treated at home if that's the cause for sure. Here are some helpful tips to ease your breathing and open your lungs: 

  • Sit up after eating: Trying to lie down just after a large meal may make you feel like you can't take a deep breath. Stay upright for at least 30 minutes after meals.
  • Turn on a fan: If your room is stuffy, you may feel like you can't breath well. Open a few windows and turn on a fan. You can also try going outside to get some fresh air.
  • Humidify the air: If you are suffering from a respiratory illness, dry air can make you feel more stuffed up in both your nose and your chest. If you don't have a humidifier, you can place a pot on the stove and boil some water. Then just place the steaming pan in the corner of the room you are sitting in.
  • Try deep breathing exercises: Deep breathing exercises can help calm anxiety and has the added benefit of expanding and stretching your lungs.

When to Seek Medical Help

Important Note: If you have sudden onset difficulty breathing you need to call 9-1-1 or have someone take you to the nearest emergency room.

If you have been ill recently and can't take a deep breath along with these symptoms, see your doctor as soon as possible:

  • Can't breathe well with a fever
  • Feeling like you can't get your breath with light activity or if you're resting
  • Wheezing and no asthma diagnosis
  • Trouble breathing while you're sleeping
  • Barking cough
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