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What are Common Causes of Shortness of Breath and Fatigue?

By Carey Reeve
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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Shortness of breath and fatigue are symptoms that can be experienced with many physical conditions and disorders, including endocrine disorders, heart and blood vessel disorders, lung diseases and anemia, or as side effects from medications. These two symptoms are most commonly associated with weight gain, limited athletic ability, depression and anxiety. A medical professional might look for evidence pointing to one of these causes before testing for less common conditions.

The phrase "shortness of breath" can mean different things to different people. For some people, it might mean that they feel unable to breathe as deeply as they normally would because their lungs won’t expand as much as usual or feel congested. For others, they mean that even though her lungs feel clear and they can take full breaths, they feel the need to breathe much faster or more deeply — or both — than normal. These two different definitions can result from different causes, and misunderstandings between a medical professional and patient can lead to a misdiagnosis.

In the same way, fatigue can have several meanings. Physical fatigue encompasses both fatigue in specific muscles and a feeling of lethargy throughout the body. There also is a significant difference between mental and physical fatigue. Mental fatigue can mean persistent drowsiness or an overall inability to concentrate. Again, the patient needs to be as clear as possible with his or her healthcare provider about what type of fatigue is felt.

The common endocrine disorders diabetes, thyroiditis, and adrenal fatigue all are known to cause both shortness of breath and fatigue. Thyroiditis can be caused by several issues, many of which are autoimmune disorders. Usually, those involving low thyroid function are responsible for these symptoms. Adrenal fatigue often goes along with hypothyroidism because the adrenal glands will attempt to compensate for the hormone imbalance caused by lack of sufficient thyroid function.

Heart and blood vessel disorders include congestive heart failure and coronary artery disease. When shortness of breath occurs when the person is at rest, especially when lying down, heart failure is a strong possibility. Coronary artery disease is marked by shortness of breath that happens while the person is active and usually occurs along with chest pain.

Lung diseases such as asthma, pneumonia and lung cancer can cause both shortness of breath and fatigue because of congestion of the lungs or by constriction of the airways inside the lungs. Coughing and tightness in the chest are likely to be experienced if one of these conditions is behind the symptoms. Anemia, a dramatically low number of red blood cells available to carry oxygen from the lungs to all the other cells in the body, also can result in shortness of breath and fatigue.

Some medications list shortness of breath and fatigue as possible side effects. If a new medication was started prior to the onset of symptoms, a medical professional can determine whether it is responsible for the symptoms. Anyone who experiences breathing problems after taking a medication or during normal physical activity should contact a medical professional as soon as possible.

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Discussion Comments
By Buster29 — On Feb 10, 2014

When I was in my teens, I would often get short of breath and fatigued whenever I ran laps in gym class. I could handle running short sprints, and I had enough energy to play the games in class, but long-distance running really took it out of me. The coach just thought I was completely out of shape.

Years later, I figured out what was causing my shortness of breath and fatigue. I had an allergy to freshly cut grass, and we would have to run our laps around a grassy field. This would trigger a case of "exercise-induced asthma", a breathing condition that only happens during aerobic exercises like distance running. I was fine as long as I ran laps indoors and paced myself, but the allergens outside would trigger an asthma attack.

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