Shortness of Breath During Pregnancy: Signs, Symptoms and Treatment

Shortness of Breath During Pregnancy: Signs, Symptoms and Treatment
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Shortness of breath during pregnancy is very common. As a doctor at Northwestern Medicine Kishwaukee Hospital, I find that most pregnant people affected by shortness of breath during pregnancy will first experience symptoms in the second trimester. Symptoms often continue through the third trimester.

Most of the time, shortness of breath is harmless. The pregnant body goes through dramatic structural changes as the uterus expands and hormones change throughout gestation, which can cause changes in heart rate and blood volume. Pregnancy can cause an increase in the hormone progesterone, which may cause you to breathe deeper. The accommodation the body makes for these changes is to breathe faster.

What to do when you experience shortness of breath during pregnancy

When experiencing shortness of breath, stop any activity and rest. Although there are no specific exercises or stretches that can cure shortness of breath during pregnancy altogether, it may help to expand lung capacity by reclining and stretching the arms above the head.

Other ways to provide relief from shortness of breath during pregnancy include maintaining good posture and sleeping propped up, preferably on your left side. Both actions can expand lung capacity and may provide relief. 

It’s important to remember to take things easy during pregnancy, especially when experiencing shortness of breath. The body goes through a great deal of changes during gestation, and while this doesn’t mean stopping daily activities or regular exercise, it’s important to listen to the body when it needs to rest.

When to worry about shortness of breath

Most of the time, feeling short of breath during pregnancy is normal and not a cause for concern. However, there are some cases in which pregnant people should see a healthcare provider.

If the shortness of breath comes on suddenly and does not get better with rest, or if breathing is painful or accompanied by chest pain, you should seek immediate medical evaluation. 

If shortness of breath accompanies the usual signs of respiratory illness, then you should contact your healthcare provider. Asthma exacerbation or illnesses like pneumonia or a bad viral infection can cause a short-of-breath feeling. If there are other signs of illness, such as sputum, fever or cough, an infection may be the cause.

Pregnant people with severe asthma will often see symptoms worsen during pregnancy, most commonly between weeks 24 to 36. An allergist can help those with worsened symptoms find the appropriate medicine to control asthma symptoms during pregnancy. 

Pulmonary embolism, or a blood clot in the lungs, is a serious complication that causes shortness of breath and usually chest pain. Other conditions, such as a heart attack, can also cause this. Heart abnormalities can occur because of pregnancy and may cause shortness of breath. Anytime shortness of breath is accompanied by chest pain, patients should seek immediate medical treatment.

Preeclampsia, a serious blood pressure condition that can manifest after 20 weeks of pregnancy, can cause fluid buildup in the lungs, which causes a short-of-breath feeling. This rare condition is called pulmonary edema, and usually onsets quickly. Pregnant people with preeclampsia should be monitored closely by their obstetrician to prevent pulmonary edema and other symptoms of preeclampsia.

Shortness of breath typically resolves rather quickly after delivery. The body goes through drastic changes during pregnancy and starts to return to its pre-pregnancy baseline over the month after delivery. Any breathing changes should start to resolve right after delivery and continue to return to normal as the body recovers.

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