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7 Medications That Can Cause Shortness of Breath

A cartoon of a man experiencing shortness of breath.

Shortness of breath is a feeling of not being able to get enough air into your lungs. The medical term for it is dyspnea (pronounced disp-nee-uh). It can feel like you’re gasping for air or need to work harder to breathe. People experiencing shortness of breath can feel as if they are air hungry. If asked to describe the feeling, it is common to hear it described as chest tightness, inability to take deep breaths, or simply difficulty breathing. Other symptoms that can accompany shortness of breath include rapid breathing, wheezing (noisy breathing), abnormal breath sounds, chest pain, and palpitations.

Cardiovascular and respiratory diseases are common causes of shortness of breath. In addition, many medicines such as sulfa drugs, heart medicines, and other drugs can cause you to develop symptoms such as shortness of breath. This also includes drug reactions to “street drugs.” 

Please continue reading to learn about some of the medications that can result in shortness of breath.

Why do you feel short of breath?

There are many reasons to feel short of breath. The most common is if there is too little oxygen or too much carbon dioxide in the body. In these situations, the central nervous system tells the lungs to work harder, which can result in a feeling of shortness of breath depending on the main cause (Asthma attack, Pulmonary Embolism, COPD exacerbation, Heart Failure exacerbation, etc.).

What is the leading cause of shortness of breath?

The leading cause of shortness of breath is heart or lung conditions. This includes common respiratory disorders such as allergies, asthma, bronchitis (lung inflammation), chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), and respiratory infections such as the flu, pneumonia, and COVID-19

In addition, other lung disorders such as pulmonary edema (fluid in the lungs), pulmonary fibrosis (scarring of lung tissue), pneumothorax (lung collapse), lung vasculitis (inflammation of the blood vessels in the lungs), hypersensitivity pneumonitis (an immune system disorder), pulmonary embolism (a blood clot in the lungs), pleurisy (inflammation of the membrane between the lungs and chest wall), pleural effusion (abnormal buildup of fluid in the pleura), medical conditions such as tuberculosis or sarcoidosis, lung injury, lung cancer, and other lung diseases can cause shortness of breath and breathing problems. 

Besides these respiratory issues, cardiovascular conditions such as heart failure, cardiomyopathy, angina, heart attack, and abnormal heart rhythm can have effects on the respiratory system and cause shortness of breath.

What are the top 3 causes of shortness of breath?

Three of the most common causes of shortness of breath in people who do not have severe lung disease include:

  • Deconditioning or lack of exercise
  • Overweight or obesity
  • Smoking

Other possible causes besides lung problems include anemia, anxiety, panic attacks, strenuous workouts, and being at high altitudes. 

Anything that causes the lungs inflammation or irritation blocks air movement in the lung tissue, or blocks the movement of the lungs in the chest cavity can cause shortness of breath. 

Your primary care physician can make a diagnosis by taking a history, performing a physical exam, and ordering the necessary blood test or imaging study as needed. They may refer you to a specialist in respiratory medicine if the cause of your shortness of breath is not easily identified or if you need more specialized care.

What is drug-induced lung disease?

Drug-induced pulmonary disease (related to the lungs) is when you develop lung disease due to a reaction to a medication. Drug-induced lung diseases can be of various types, including:

  • Allergic reactions such as asthma, eosinophilic pneumonia, and hypersensitivity pneumonitis
  • Alveolar hemorrhage (bleeding into the lung air sacs)
  • Bronchitis (inflammation of the air passages) 
  • Interstitial fibrosis (damage to the lung tissue)
  • Pulmonary hypertension (abnormal pressure in the blood vessels of the lungs)
  • Drugs that cause the immune system to mistakenly destroy healthy body tissue
  • Pulmonary edema (fluid buildup in the lungs)
  • Pleural effusion (abnormal buildup of fluid in the tissues that line the lungs and chest cavity)
  • Granulomatous lung disease (lung inflammation)
  • Pneumonitis (inflamed tissue in the lung air sacs)
  • Lung vasculitis (inflammation of lung blood vessels)
  • Swelling of lymph nodes
  • Mediastinitis (inflammation of the area surrounding the lungs)

Which medications can cause shortness of breath?

Certain drugs can cause lung disease, which can lead to shortness of breath. Some of the medications that are known to cause drug-induced lung disease include:

Medications that can cause shortness of breath as a side effect include: 

  • Statins (cholesterol-lowering drugs)
  • Beta-blockers (used to treat high blood pressure)
  • Opioid drugs that cause respiratory depression (slow and shallow breathing)

How do doctors treat shortness of breath caused by drug-induced lung diseases? 

The first thing a health care professional will do to treat a lung disease brought on by medication is to stop the medication. Other treatments will depend on your respiratory problems. Treatments may include supplemental oxygen for low blood oxygen and/or anti-inflammatory medicines such as steroids to treat inflammation. 

When to see a doctor for shortness of breath?

The American Lung Association advises that you should see a doctor if you develop shortness of breath that is unexpected based on your general health status, fitness level, and activities. If you have shortness of breath that does not improve with treatment (for example, an inhaler for asthma) or is accompanied by other symptoms such as chest pain, these may be warning signs of a serious condition. This is a medical emergency, and you should proceed to the nearest emergency room without delay for professional medical attention. If you have a serious heart or lung disease, your healthcare provider might give you a medical alert bracelet to wear which can inform people of your condition if you become unconscious or incapacitated.

Why am I short of breath, but my blood oxygen levels are good?

Some people with lung disease or recurrent episodes of shortness of breath have ways to measure their blood oxygen levels at home. This is usually done with a pulse oximeter. The takeaway is that you can be short of breath while your oxygen levels show good readings. In other words, shortness of breath does not always correlate to oxygen saturation measured with a pulse oximeter or lung function. If you have severe shortness of breath, tell your health care professional right away, even if your oxygen saturation is good.

How do you know if your shortness of breath is heart-related?

Shortness of breath may be heart-related if it is accompanied by other symptoms such as severe pain in the chest, rapid heartbeat, swelling in your ankles/legs/arms/face, and sweating. These symptoms can develop after physical exertion or at rest. This can be confused with a panic attack or anxiety


  1. https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/symptoms/16942-dyspnea
  2. https://foundation.chestnet.org/lung-health-a-z/shortness-of-breath/#
  3. https://www.pennmedicine.org/for-patients-and-visitors/patient-information/conditions-treated-a-to-z/drug-induced-lung-diseases
  4. https://medlineplus.gov/ency/article/000104.htm
  5. https://www.lung.org/lung-health-diseases/warning-signs-of-lung-disease/shortness-of-breath/diagnosing-treating#: