What to Know About Shortness of Breath During Pregnancy

It can feel harder to catch your breath while expecting. Find out what causes shortness of breath during pregnancy, how to feel better, and when you should call your doctor.

breathlessness
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It's normal to feel a little breathless during pregnancy—and not just from the excitement of creating a new life. This unexpected symptom is actually quite common as your uterus expands upwards and your body adapts to hormonal changes. In rare cases, though, breathing difficulties may signal serious complications like pneumonia or blood clots, or even less commonly heart issues or cancer. Read on to learn more about shortness of breath during pregnancy and when to call the doctor.

What Causes Pregnancy Breathing Difficulties?

In early pregnancy, shortness of breath, known as dyspnea, is caused by increased levels of progesterone. Research shows about 60% to 70% of pregnant people experience this symptom. In the first trimester, it can feel harder to breathe as your body adjusts to new hormonal levels. Often, this symptom goes away after a few weeks, then makes a resurgence during the second or third trimester.

As your baby grows larger inside your abdomen, other organs are squeezed and pushed aside. Your lungs might not have enough room to expand with a full breath—and your diaphragm can't offer much help because it's also compressed, says Laura Riley, M.D., Obstetrician and Gynecologist In-Chief at NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital and Chair of the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology at Weill Cornell Medicine in New York City.

Don't worry: Assuming there are no underlying causes besides the pregnancy, shortness of breath isn't a sign of a health problem, and this compression on your lungs doesn't cause any permanent damage. After your baby is born, your organs will slip right back into their pre-pregnancy position.

In fact, studies show that most pregnant people get relief from this breathlessness before childbirth. When your baby's head drops into your birth canal—typically about two or three weeks before delivery—you'll have more room for your diaphragm and breathe more easily.

How to Cope With Shortness of Breath During Pregnancy

First of all, try not to worry too much about your shortness of breath during pregnancy. Although you may feel as if you're getting less air, high levels of progesterone help you take deeper breaths to get enough oxygen into your blood. And because your blood volume is higher during pregnancy, more oxygen passes back and forth across the placenta as you inhale and exhale, says Dr. Riley.

You can relieve symptoms by giving yourself and your lungs as much breathing room as possible. Try adjusting your body position. Stand up straight, sit up tall, and sleep propped up on pillows to expand the space in your abdominal cavity. When you feel breathless, slow down—rushing makes your heart and lungs work harder. You can also consciously breathe in a way that raises your rib cage: Check that your ribs push out against your hands as you inhale deeply.

When to See a Doctor

If you are experiencing shortness of breath, be sure to mention this and any other symptoms you have to your health care provider during your prenatal visits. Also, if you are concerned at all, call them right away—that's what they're there for! Your doctor or midwife will be able to rule out or treat any underlying causes.

If you experience shortness of breath that's sudden, severe, or associated with chest pain or a faster pulse, get medical help immediately. A blood clot could have settled in your lungs, says Dr. Riley. This situation (called a pulmonary embolism) is a rare but dangerous occurrence among pregnant people, especially those with blood clots in their legs.

Be aware, too, that breathing problems can be caused by pneumonia. Usually accompanied by fever, chest pain, and cough, pneumonia is the third-leading cause of death among pregnant people, says Dr. Riley. Pneumonia can be viral or bacterial, and with either type, potential complications can include respiratory failure, premature labor, or infections that can be dangerous for you and your baby.

You should also seek medical advice if you have asthma that worsens during pregnancy. Many asthma medicines are considered safe while expecting. Doctors usually prefer to prescribe inhaled asthma medications during pregnancy because they have a more localized effect and work well. If you discover that your chest feels tight or your medication isn't helping, however, tell your doctor.

Additionally, in rare cases, shortness of breath in pregnancy may be a symptom of an underlying condition like a heart issue or cancer. If your shortness of breath is more than just bothersome, doesn't reduce when you change positions, or is accompanied by other concerning symptoms like pain, contact your doctor. They will be able to discern if anything else is going on besides the typical pregnancy-related shortness of breath.

The Bottom Line

Shortness of breath during pregnancy is very common, and in most cases, not a sign of a health concern. It still can be uncomfortable and is something to discuss with your medical provider. The best ways to get relief are to slow down, change your position, and relax as much as possible. And trust that despite feeling that you're not getting a full breath, your baby is getting the oxygen they need.

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