One of the earliest and most common symptoms of heart disease is dyspnoea, or shortness of breath. Whilst it may be healthy for an individual to feel short of breath after heavy exertion, this should not normally happen after routine walking or while at rest. It should be of particular concern when the onset is sudden, as this may indicate heart failure.

When symptoms are persistent, a more likely diagnosis is coronary artery disease, valvular heart disease, chronic lung disease, or emphysema.

When considering diagnosis, there are three basic types of dyspnoea that are generally investigated:

  • Cardiac dyspnoea generally occurs when cardiac output is compromised. This may be due to blocked vessels, valvular disease, or arrhythmia.
  • Pulmonary dyspnoea is a result of lung disease, usually caused by a narrowing or stiffening of the airways, which physically impairs the ability to take air into the lungs.
  • Functional (or psychological) dyspnoea often tends to cause shallow, rapid breathing and thus hyperventilation. The underlying trigger in such situations is usually brought on by feelings of anxiety or panic attacks.

Other less common causes of dyspnoea include pneumothorax (a collapsed lung) or pulmonary embolisms (blood clots within the lungs).