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Huffing, puffing, wheezing, and cough might not be anything serious, but sometimes it is. Only your doctor can tell you for sure, but here are some possibilities for the causes of cough and shortness of breath.

There are dozens of conditions that cause cough and shortness of breath. Some of them are minor. Some of them are serious. Some of them go away in a few days even if you don't do anything about them, and some of them last throughout life.

More importantly, some health concerns that seem to demand shortness of breath treatment are things you can handle on your own, and some require medical attention. Sorting out the possibilities, and making an educated guess on whether you need to see a doctor right away, begins with noticing whether the cough is dry or productive.

Is it dry cough or productive cough? 

A dry cough does not produce phlegm. A productive cough expels phlegm from the lungs and throat. Some conditions that usually cause dry cough include:

  • Asthma. If you have shortness of breath and a dry cough that seems to have some kind of a trigger, such as exercise, exposure to dust, exposure to tobacco smoke or chemical fumes, or changes in temperature, the problem could be asthma. Many asthmatics have symptoms "out of nowhere" at night once or twice a month, and many have related skin problems, such as eczema. Asthma is usually a chronic disease, but its symptoms tend to be episodic, not continuous. [1]
  • Chemical pneumonia. Lung damage due to airborne chemical exposure can cause shortness of breath, dry cough, headache, and more. Usually this kind of pneumonia occurs in children who have drunk solvents (for example, turpentine or nail polish) or adults who have inhaled gasoline while trying to siphon it out of a tank. The damage to the lungs may not be obvious for 48 to 72 hours after the incident. It's a good idea to see the doctor right away, but to stay alert to the development of symptoms of damage to the lungs or the chest cavity for several days. By the time the initial dry cough has become a productive cough, the need for medical care is urgent. [2]
  • Colds and flu. Even after you are over most of your symptoms, you may still have a dry cough and shortness of breath. Paradoxically, cold and damp air usually aggravates dry cough [3]. This is a situation in which home remedies usually work. If your symptoms don't go away in two weeks, you should see a doctor.
  • Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD). Constant irritation by stomach acid's coming up into the throat can cause hoarseness and cough. The things people who have GERD to keep their throats clear may cause shortness of breath. GERD doesn't necessarily always lead to dyspnea, but when people try to control their hoarseness by constantly clearing their throats, they trigger an inflammatory response that perpetuates the problem. Symptoms are even worse when there is post-nasal drip or the problem has gone on so long there are changes in the voice. You may be able to make some changes on your own, but you need the help of a doctor who can treat your voice as well as your GERD. [4]
  • Many heart and blood pressure medications cause dry cough, including both ACE-ihhibitors and beta-blockers.
  • Inhaled or swallowed objects. It's not hard to imagine that inhaling a small object, say, a marble, or a poorly chewed crust of bread, could cause cough and shortness of breath. However, it isn't just swallowed objects that cause these symptoms. Aspiration, breathing in, stomach acid can cause aspiration pneumonia (a specific kind of aspiration pneumonia known as Mendelson syndrome [5]. This problem is most common in elderly people who have trouble swallowing. Aspiration of mineral oil can cause exogenous lipoid pneumonia [6]. This can happen to cooks who work over a grill. Aspiration of bacteria from the throat, breathing them in, can result from inhaling a dirty coin or something from the floor [7]. An infection results, but it is caught from the object, not from another person.
  • Whooping cough, also known as pertussis, still infects up to 27,000 babies every year in the United States. It begins with nasal congestion, sneezing, and low-grade fever. It progresses to fits of coughing that last several minutes and end with a distinctive "whoop." These coughing fits deprive the brain of oxygen and can cause seizures. The severity of the dry cough can damage the frenum (the soft spot in a baby's skull) and cause bloodshot eyes. Death is not unknown, even with modern treatment. Any baby who has a "whooping" cough should be seen by a doctor at once. [8]

There are also conditions characterized by a productive cough, which produces phlegm.

  • Allergies and colds. These common problems produce mucus that drains down the back of the throat. They usually can be treated with natural ways to manage dyspnea.
  • Bronchitis generates mucus from the windpipe itself. Chronic bronchitis, which lasts three months or more, can exacerbate emphysema, a condition in which the lungs are too "loose" to allow adequate air to be inhaled. Together with asthma, these two conditions can cause chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, also known as COPD. [9]
  • Pneumonia and other infections of the lungs usually cause productive cough.

When should you go to the doctor for cough and shortness of breath?

  • If you have a dry cough and/or shortness of breath that you do not know are caused by a prescription drug, see your doctor if symptoms continue for two weeks.
  • If you have a productive cough, see your doctor right away if there is blood or rust-colored matter in your sputum. See your doctor if you have night sweats, chest pains, fever and chills, weight loss, or fluid retention in your feet or around your waist.

But see you doctor for any persistent cough that interferes with your quality of life. Maintaining a healthy respiratory tract fights aging even at the level of your DNA [10]. The things you do to breathe more easily don't just improve the quality of your life, they help you live longer.

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