Shortness of breath in pregnancy: How to manage the symptoms

Breathlessness is one of the most common side effects of pregnancy.
Written by
Sophie Overett
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Last updated on
June 3, 2024
min read
Shortness of Breath in Pregnancy: Causes and Treatment | Kin Fertility
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When navigating a pregnancy, our lives can often feel marked more by the changes in our baby's body than our own. That's not to say that we don't feel them, just that the excitement of a new addition to the family can be overwhelming.

After all, knowing exactly when the baby inside of you is bigger than a grape or when they're starting to suck their little thumb can be a lot more fun to talk about than the normal changes occurring in your own body.

That said, pregnant people know best of all that pregnancy can sometimes not be the magic hour we'd like it to be. From morning sickness to insomnia and body aches, even what some people might call a normal part of pregnancy can feel like a relentless, full-bodied ride.

Still, these things are important to talk about as they can be the cause of distress, and sometimes a sign that it's time to see a doctor.

In today's article, we'll focus on shortness of breath in pregnancy.

Is breathlessness in pregnancy common?

Breathlessness, also known as dyspnea, is one of the most common side effects of pregnancy, affecting between 60 and 70% of pregnant people [1].

This can range from mild breathlessness and trouble breathing — perhaps just needing to stop for a minute to take some deeper breaths — to more severe shortness of breath, leading to a rapid pulse and even heart palpitations.

What causes shortness of breath during pregnancy?

Peer-reviewed studies agree that there doesn't seem to be one single cause of shortness of breath during pregnancy. That being said, most agree that it's likely a result of the physiological changes that occur during early pregnancy.

At the start of your first trimester, your pregnancy hormones increase. This includes the hormone progesterone which expands your lung capacity — after all, you're breathing for 2 now.

This change in your hormonal levels not only helps you and your baby get enough oxygen, but it also helps you get rid of waste products such as carbon dioxide. In other words, you're getting a little more breathing room, and a symptom of this change can be shortness of breath [2].

Other physiological changes early in pregnancy include an increase in blood volume, a decrease in peripheral vascular resistance during the first trimester, and an increase in heart rate and blood pressure [1].

But what if you only start experiencing breathing problems later in your pregnancy?

Another cause of shortness of breath occurs in your third trimester as the growing uterus and baby get large enough to put pressure on your diaphragm. This has been found to cause difficulty breathing and some chest pain in pregnant women [2].

In some cases, the baby high up beneath your rib cage can also put pressure on other organs and cause you to breathe faster or struggle to draw breath.

While uncomfortable, these are all unfortunately normal parts of the gestation process.

Is shortness of breath a sign of early pregnancy?

It can be. Approximately half of the women who experience shortness of breath do so prior to 20 weeks of gestation, and some, as a result of those increased pregnancy hormones, can even feel breathless from the onset of the pregnancy [3].

That said, most women report pregnancy shortness of breath in that 20 to 30-week window, meaning you're more likely to experience it as your pregnancy progresses.

Is shortness of breath in early pregnancy a sign of twins?

Some research suggests that yes, shortness of breath could be more prevalent in women carrying twins, but in most cases, this has been found to be in the third trimester as the uterus expands and the babies grow.

In other words, early on in your pregnancy, carrying twins (or even triplets) is unlikely to affect your breath.

Will my breathlessness affect my baby?

While breathlessness might make you feel like you're getting less oxygen, you're actually still breathing deeply, and as long as you have none of the symptoms we're about to discuss, your baby will not be impacted.

When to worry about shortness of breath during pregnancy

While shortness of breath is common and generally a result of the normal physiological changes that accompany pregnancy, there are times when it can be an indication of underlying health conditions or pregnancy complications [4].

Shortness of breath has been found in some cases to be an indication of low iron levels, asthma, a blood clot, pulmonary embolism, high blood pressure, or other heart conditions such as irregular heartbeat. These conditions are usually accompanied by chest pain, a persistent cough, heart palpitations, or extreme tiredness or fatigue [2].

If you have any of these other symptoms, have concerns about feeling breathless, or have a family history of heart conditions or asthma, you should speak to your doctor immediately.

What helps with shortness of breath pregnancy symptoms?

There are many ways you can give yourself a little more breathing room (pun intended!) when you experience shortness of breath, whether you're in your first or third trimester.

In particular, as your pregnancy progresses it's important to pay attention to the way you feel and the way your body adapts to the growing baby. Changes in how you feel can indicate it's time to see a doctor, but first, try:

Moving around and changing positions

Whether you're standing, sitting or sleeping, many women have found that good posture can ease that tight chest feeling and help them feel like they have more room to breathe.

Focus on keeping your chest lifted, and sleep propped up on pillows, semi-reclined to avoid those rapid pulse, rapid breath moments.

Exercise regularly, but remember to also slow down

Even in those early days of pregnancy, both you and your baby are going to need more oxygen to help you accommodate the needs of your bodies — and too much physical activity can cause strain.

Giving yourself more time and more space to get things done can help to avoid blood pressure rises and feelings of stress that can lead to breathlessness. So swap out Pilates for yoga, or morning jogs for afternoon walks, and don't be afraid to put your feet up and read that book that's been on your list since last year.

Try out some breathing exercises

Taking deep breaths along with some gentle movements can help you to physically adjust. And why not turn this into a relaxation exercise too and accompany the deep breaths with some guided meditation that will help you to focus and unwind [5]?

Try an iron supplement

Iron helps to support oxygenated blood, and it is vital for maintaining healthy energy levels and overall health during (and prior to) pregnancy. This is where Kin's Iron Support comes in — designed to help relieve tiredness, support healthy iron levels and maintain energy production.

In severe cases of shortness of breath, or if you have any concerns about blood clots, heart conditions, asthma or any other health problem, be sure to talk to your doctor or nurse.

Photo credit: Getty Images

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