A young person presenting with shortness of breath is common to the accident and emergency department. Usually this hyperventilation is anxiety related or a panic attack, but sometimes it can be caused by a serious underlying condition like pulmonary embolus. Acute shortness of breath in any patient should never be dismissed lightly. It is important to realise that pulmonary embolus can present without chest pain and with shortness of breath as the major symptom. Such patients can be distinguished by close attention to history and examination, risk factors for thromboembolic disease and the use of basic investigations (electrocardiogram, chest radiography and arterial blood gas analysis). A serious cause for shortness of breath must be excluded before labelling it as “hysteria” or “panic”.
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