Shortness of Breath (Dyspnea)

Author: OncoLink Team
Last Reviewed:

What is shortness of breath (Dyspnea)?

Dyspnea is the term used 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?

  • Lung or heart disease.
  • Lung infection.
  • Blood clot in the lungs (pulmonary embolism).
  • Fluid around the heart or the lungs.
  • Blocked airway.
  • Radiation therapy to the lung, some chemotherapy treatments and surgery to remove lung tissue.
  • Fluid in the abdomen.
  • Low red blood cells.
  • Anxiety.
  • Extreme muscle weakness.
  • Fatigue.
  • Pain.

Call your care team when you have:

  • New or worsening difficulty breathing or trouble 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.
  • Perform daily grooming activities (showering, shaving, brushing teeth, combing hair) while sitting down.
  • Wear loose, easy to put on clothes.
  • Wear flat shoes.
  • Keep items you use often 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 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 as prescribed by your doctor.
  • Take medications as prescribed by your doctor that decrease shortness of breath before tiring activities.
  • 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 cleaning, grocery shopping, and cooking.

How is shortness of breath treated?

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

  • Medications that promote red blood cell production (used to treat anemia)
  • Red blood transfusions (used to treat anemia)
  • Medications to treat pain or anxiety
  • Physical therapy to strengthen weakened muscles and teach energy saving techniques
  • Respiratory therapy consultation for breathing instructions and techniques

If you have any questions about shortness of breath, or need additional 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.

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