Shortness of Breath (Dyspnea)

Author: OncoLink Team
Content Contributor: Allyson Distel, MPH
Last Reviewed: February 07, 2024

What is shortness of breath (Dyspnea)?

Dyspnea is when you have trouble breathing or a hard time catching your breath. Some people describe it as an awareness of uncomfortable breathing or a feeling of working very hard to breathe.

What causes shortness of breath?

Call your care team when you have:

  • New or worsening trouble breathing or catching your breath.
  • Discomfort when breathing.
  • Chest pain.
  • Discolored or bloody sputum (phlegm or mucus you cough up).
  • Fever greater than 100.4°F (38°C).
  • Wheezing.
  • Faster breathing rate.
  • Swelling of your ankles or calves.
  • Trouble sleeping lying down.

What can I do to manage my shortness of breath?

  • Plan your day to do important or fun activities first. Limit unnecessary activity.
  • Take rest periods during activities.
  • Sit down while doing daily tasks such as showering, shaving, brushing teeth, and combing hair.
  • Wear loose clothes that are easy to put on.
  • Wear flat shoes.
  • Keep items nearby and easy to reach.
  • Avoid warm temperatures, unpleasant odors, or fumes.
  • Eat 6 small meals throughout the day rather than 3 large meals.
  • Some positions can help decrease difficulty breathing:
    • Try propping your head up while in bed.
    • Sit upright and lean slightly forward with arms on a table.
  • Pursed Lip Breathing can be used to help you breathe easier:
    • Breathe in through your nose to the count of 2.
    • Purse your lips like you are going to blow out a match or candle.
    • Breathe out through pursed lips to a count of 4.
    • Repeat until shortness of breath is relieved.
  • Use oxygen and medications as prescribed by your doctor.
  • Perform relaxation exercises and guided imagery.
  • Take part in activities such as TV, radio, games, and music.
  • Use a wheelchair as needed.
  • Ask for, and accept, offers of help from family members and friends for daily tasks.

How is shortness of breath treated?

The treatment of shortness of breath depends on its cause. Your care team may recommend the following:

  • Medications that help your body make red blood cells (used to treat anemia).
  • Red blood transfusions (used to treat anemia).
  • Medications to treat pain or anxiety.
  • Physical therapy to make muscles stronger and teach energy-saving techniques.
  • Respiratory therapy to learn breathing techniques.

If you have any questions about shortness of breath or need more information, ask your care team. If your shortness of breath comes on quickly or if you feel like you won’t be able to manage it at home, call 911 right away.

American Cancer Society. 2020. Shortness of Breath. 

American Lung Association. 2022. Learn About Shortness of Breath. 

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