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Breathlessness and changes in breathing patterns

Living with breathlessness and breathing problems can be an emotional and physical challenge, but there are lots of things you can do to manage this.

On this page:

What is breathlessness?

Breathlessness, or shortness of breath, is the feeling of being out of breath as your lungs work harder to draw in more oxygen. We all get out of breath when we’re doing something active, but you may become breathless much more easily when you’re ill. There might be a physical cause for this, like a heart problem, pain or anaemia (not enough oxygen in the blood), or a psychological cause, such as anxiety.

Managing breathlessness

Tell your nurse or doctor if you feel out of breath or find it hard to breathe after light exercise, like walking. They’ll try to work out what might be making you breathless and get you the right care and treatment. They may also refer you to other professionals, like physiotherapists and occupational therapists.

There are several different ways to manage breathing problems.

Drug treatments

Depending on the type and cause of your breathing problems, you may be prescribed medication. Examples include:

  • inhalers
  • steroids
  • oxygen
  • strong painkillers to calm your breathing
  • drugs to make you feel more relaxed (benzodiazepines)

Non-drug options

Other methods include controlled breathing techniques to manage any anxiety you may be experiencing. It can also help to keep rooms well ventilated where possible, either by opening a window or using a fan.

Controlling your breathing

Breathing control is about:

  • slower, controlled, normal breaths
  • using the lower chest
  • keeping the upper chest and shoulders relaxed

The aim is to reduce effort and better manage your breathing. It can also improve the efficiency of your lungs and make exercise, like walking and climbing the stairs, a little easier.

Controlled breathing exercise

This exercise may help ease shortness of breath. You can also ask your doctor or nurse to explain how to do controlled breathing.

To prepare, place one hand on your tummy, just above the belly button. Relax your shoulders and upper chest – letting out a good sigh through your mouth can help. Rest your elbows in by your side.

Taking your time, try the following steps:

  1. Feel your tummy rise and fall under your hand.
  2. Breathe in smoothly through your nose, allowing your tummy to swell.
  3. Take in only the air you need.
  4. Breathe out through your mouth, relax and let your tummy fall.
  5. Release each breath until it comes to its natural end.
  6. As you breathe out narrow your mouth slightly, if this helps.
  7. Each time you breathe out, relax your upper chest a little more.

Breathing changes towards the end of life

Towards the end of life, other changes often occur in a person’s breathing. Breaths may become less regular, shallower or have rapid periods with pauses in between. If you are caring for someone who is approaches the end of their life, read our information about changes in breathing.

Marie Curie's Information and Support team has produced this information with help from:

  • Marie Faulkner, Senior Social Media Manager, Marie Curie
  • Rachael Brady, Senior Legacy Officer, Marie Curie
  • Our Readers' Panel volunteers.

This information is not intended to replace any advice from health or social care professionals. We suggest that you consult with a qualified professional about your individual circumstances. Read more about how our information is created and how it's used.

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