The Link Between Obesity and Shortness of Breath: What You Need to Know

Did you know that obesity increases your risk for certain health conditions and can also affect how you breathe? 

With over 650 million adults worldwide diagnosed with obesity and more than 1.9 billion people considered overweight, it's important to understand how weight can influence your breathing. 

Obesity has been associated with respiratory problems such as asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), but can being overweight cause shortness of breath and respiratory syndromes? 

This article will define the different weight categories and discuss their connections to certain complications, including shortness of breath and obesity hypoventilation syndrome.

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Is Shortness of Breath Normal?

Shortness of breath, also known as dyspnea, is a feeling of breathlessness or not being able to get enough air. It can be caused by:

  • Stress
  • Poor air quality
  • High altitudes
  • Minor illnesses such as the common cold
  • Intense exercise or physical exertion

These are normal, temporary episodes of shortness of breath, and symptoms typically go away on their own.

In more severe cases, shortness of breath may be a sign of a serious health condition such as pulmonary (lung) disease or heart disease. If you’ve been diagnosed with obesity or if you’re overweight, it can also be a sign of an obesity-related condition such as obstructive sleep apnea or asthma. Symptoms may be persistent and may require medical care.

Contact your healthcare provider immediately if you experience sudden, unexplained shortness of breath that does not go away or occurs with other symptoms such as chest pain.

How do I know if I’m overweight?

Knowing your weight is an important part of understanding your overall health. Body Mass Index (BMI) is a tool used to determine your weight category. It measures body fat based on your height and weight and helps your healthcare provider assess your risk for obesity-related health problems  such as difficulty breathing and high blood pressure. A higher BMI is usually associated with higher risk for these conditions.

The table below shows the BMI ranges associated with each weight category.

Underweight
Below 18.5
Normal Weight
18.5-24.9
Overweight
25-29.9
Obesity
30 and above

It’s important to remember that even if two people have the same BMI, the amount of body fat and associated risks may not be the same for each person.

In addition to calculating your BMI, other factors will need to be considered in order to get a clear picture of your overall health, so be sure to discuss any concerns with your healthcare provider.

What Is Obesity Hypoventilation Syndrome?

Obesity Hypoventilation Syndrome (OHS), also called Pickwickian Syndrome, is a breathing disorder associated with three main features:

  • Obesity
  • Daytime hypoventilation (breathing that is too slow or too shallow resulting in too much carbon dioxide and low oxygen levels in your body)
  • Sleep-disordered breathing such as obstructive sleep apnea (OSA)

Symptoms of OHS may include:

  • Daytime sleepiness
  • Lack of energy
  • Shortness of breath
  • Headache
  • Depression
  • Loud snoring
  • Choking or coughing while sleeping

These symptoms can impact your health and quality of life and make it difficult to perform daily activities. If you’re experiencing symptoms of OHS, contact your healthcare provider for further evaluation.

Untreated obesity hypoventilation syndrome can lead to severe medical conditions such as pulmonary hypertension (high blood pressure in the lungs), cardiovascular (heart and blood vessel) disease, and right-sided heart failure. 

What causes OHS?

While the exact cause of OHS is unknown, obesity and obstructive sleep apnea are major risk factors that contribute to its development. About 90% of the sleep-disordered breathing in OHS is related to obstructive sleep apnea. 

In people with obesity, excess adipose tissue (body fat) in the abdomen (stomach) and on the chest wall decreases pulmonary function making it harder for the lungs and diaphragm to move. This increases the amount of work required for breathing and can also contribute to daytime hypoventilation.

How common is OHS?

As the rates of obesity continue to increase globally, the number of people diagnosed with obesity hypoventilation syndrome will also increase.

In the US, OHS affects about 1 in every 260 people. In those diagnosed with obesity, particularly those with a BMI > 40 and obstructive sleep apnea, about 1 in 10 also have OHS. 

How Can I Reduce My Risk of Obesity Hypoventilation Syndrome?

You can reduce your risk of obesity hypoventilation syndrome through weight loss. Lifestyle changes such as diet and regular physical activity can help you achieve your weight loss goals and maintain a healthy weight. There are also medications available that can help with your weight loss journey. Your healthcare provider can review these medications with you and help you decide which option is right for you.

If your healthcare provider prescribed a positive airway pressure (PAP) device for obstructive sleep apnea, be sure to use it as directed. Effective treatment of OSA can also reduce your risk of developing OHS.

FAQs

Here are a few answers to common questions related to obesity and shortness of breath.

Can losing weight help with shortness of breath?

Weight loss can help relieve shortness of breath and significantly improve your overall health. Decreasing excess fat tissue in the stomach and chest wall can improve lung function, making it easier for you to breathe.

Weight loss can also reduce your risk for other obesity-related medical conditions such as diabetes and heart disease.

What is the treatment for obesity hypoventilation syndrome?

There are no medications approved to treat obesity hypoventilation syndrome, but your provider can recommend other treatment options for OHS.

Healthy lifestyle changes, such as diet and exercise, can encourage weight loss. Getting to a healthy weight can drastically improve symptoms of OHS and obstructive sleep apnea.

If needed, your healthcare provider may recommend surgery and/or medications to help with weight loss. 

Positive airway pressure (PAP) can be used to open your airways and help you breathe better. If you have obstructive sleep apnea, your provider may prescribe a continuous PAP (CPAP) or a bi-level PAP (BPAP) device to manage your condition and help increase your oxygen levels while you sleep. 

Can being overweight cause asthma?

Yes, people with obesity (BMI ≥ 30) are at an increased risk of developing asthma. It is also associated with worsening symptoms and poor outcomes in people with asthma.

Conclusion

Understanding the link between obesity and shortness of breath is important, especially in people who are overweight or diagnosed with obesity. 

While shortness of breath can be normal in certain situations like following intense exercise, it can also be a warning sign for serious health conditions such as heart disease or sleep apnea.

Your healthcare provider can help you calculate your BMI and determine if you’re at risk for obesity-related conditions including obesity hypoventilation syndrome (OHS).

Achieving and maintaining a healthy weight can reduce your risk for certain health conditions and improve symptoms of OHS and obstructive sleep apnea. 

Schedule an appointment with your healthcare provider if you’re experiencing unexplained shortness of breath or symptoms of obesity hypoventilation syndrome. Early detection and management can lead to better outcomes and improved quality of life. 

Disclaimer:

This blog post is intended for informational purposes only  and does not replace professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. 

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