Shortness of Breath (Dyspnea)

Abramson Cancer Center of the University of Pennsylvania
Last Modified: November 1, 2001

What is shortness of breath (Dyspnea)?

Dyspnea is trouble breathing or difficulty 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

When should I call the doctor or nurse?

Call your doctor or nurse when you have:

  • Difficulty breathing or trouble catching your breath
  • Discomfort when breathing
  • Chest pain
  • Discolored or bloody sputum
  • Fever greater than 100.5?
  • Wheezing
  • Faster breathing rate
  • Swelling of your ankles or calves
  • Trouble sleeping lying down

What can I do?

  • 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 frequently used items easily available.
    • 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 decrease difficulty breathing:
      • 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 strenuous 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 doctor or nurse may recommend:

  • Medications that promote red blood cell production
  • Red blood transfusions
  • 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

Do not take any medications unless instructed by your doctor or nurse.

If you have any questions about shortness of breath, or need additional information, ask your doctor or nurse. Please let your doctor or nurse know if you would like information on other topics.


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