What are Common Causes of a Cough and Shortness of Breath?

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  • Written By: Dorothy Bland
  • Edited By: Melissa Wiley
  • Last Modified Date: 14 October 2019
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A cough and shortness of breath can be caused by a variety of different ailments. When the condition occurs along with a fever, sore throat, or other common cold-like symptoms, common respiratory infections such as the common cold or the flu may be the cause. Even exposure to certain environmental conditions such as high altitudes or extreme hot or cold temperatures could cause the condition. Other common medical causes are lung-related issues such as asthma, pneumonia, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).

One very common cause of a cough and shortness of breath is asthma, a condition that restricts air flow into the lungs and makes it difficult to breathe. A wheezing chronic cough is often a side effect of the disease and can be dry or accompanied by mucus. Dust, cigarette smoke, and even the weather can trigger an asthma attack. For individuals suffering with a cough-variant asthma, however, a dry cough is usually the only symptom, and shortness of breath does not usually occur.


Pneumonia is another lung condition associated with coughing and a shortness of breath and occurs when the lungs become inflamed and infected due to exposure to germs. These germs include bacteria, parasites, and mold that spread to the lungs and make it difficult to breathe deeply. Severe cases tend to occur in those with weakened immune systems, elderly individuals, and those with chronic health conditions such as heart disease. Symptoms include pain in the chest when breathing, fever or chills, and a cough that presents with discolored mucus. Pneumonia is considered a leading cause of death in many areas around the world.

For long-term smokers, a chronic cough is a common complaint. When this is accompanied by a shortness of breath, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) may be the cause. COPD occurs when the air sacs and airways in the lungs become damaged due to irritation and can be caused by chronic bronchitis or emphysema. Over time, COPD can make it increasingly difficult to breathe. The condition can often be identified with a cough that worsens with mild activity, a wet wheezing cough, and a cough that will not go away.

Many of the conditions that can cause cough and shortness of breath may present with subtle symptoms. Some also have symptoms that appear very similar to other respiratory problems. Due to the dangers in attempting to diagnose and treat breathing problems without proper medical supervision, getting medical assistance is recommended to determine the correct causes of the symptoms and to receive the appropriate treatment.


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Post 4

Every time I've had bronchitis, I've had a bad cough, chest pain, and shortness of breath. At times, it has gotten so bad that I actually considered going to the emergency room.

I have developed bronchitis after being sick with various upper respiratory illnesses. The phlegm goes into my chest, and I have to cough with nearly every breath involuntarily to get the phlegm out.

Sometimes, antibiotics can help, but that's only if the bronchitis is caused by a bacteria. If it's viral, nothing but cough syrup and bed rest will work.

My chest would get so sore from all the coughing. Sometimes, even my stomach muscles would get sore. I could not take a deep breath, because that would result in an extreme coughing fit.

Post 3

@Perdido – That is so true. My grandfather had emphysema, but the wheezing, coughing, and shortness of breath were not enough to convince him to give up cigarettes.

With emphysema, your lungs lose elasticity, so it becomes harder for you to breathe deeply. So, his breaths were short, and the productive cough made breathing even harder.

It's a terrible way to go, because it can last for years. It gets progressively worse, too.

Post 2

When I have a cold, I usually get a dry cough, but shortness of breath isn't one of my symptoms. I believe that the cough is in response to the constant drainage of mucus down into my throat and bronchial tubes. They don't normally get so congested that I have trouble breathing, though.

Post 1

My aunt has been a smoker for more than half of her life, and she now has COPD. She has a chronic cough with shortness of breath, and over the years, her voice has become deeper and raspier.

She can't talk much at all without having a coughing spell. Her lungs wheeze when she breathes, and sometimes, I can actually hear the wheezing if she has her mouth open.

All of this is still not enough to make her quit smoking. That just goes to show how addictive it can be.

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