Feeling short of breath can be hard to live with. It can make you feel very tired and as though everything is a struggle. Some days might seem harder than others. But there are things that can help you to cope.
What can cause breathlessness?
Colds and infections
You might have a chest infection if you are more breathless than usual and are coughing up coloured phlegm or have a temperature. People with lung cancer can be more prone to infections.
Contact your GP or specialist nurse. You might need a course of antibiotics to clear up the infection. Then your breathing will be easier.
If you are very anxious, this can make you feel more breathless. This can be very frightening and make you feel even more anxious.
If you feel panicky, try to slow your breathing down. Concentrate on breathing in and out slowly.
You can practise using breathing exercises so that you are confident about using them when you need to.
You can also learn relaxation techniques. There are online resources, books, CDs and DVDs available. Some support groups can lend you books and other resources. Or you might be able to borrow some from your local library.
Controlling your breathing
When you are breathless you might find that you breathe faster and your shoulders tense up.
You may feel that this helps you in the short term. But over a long period it can make it harder and more tiring for you to breathe.
Try to control your breathing. It can help to think about:
- breathing in slowly through your nose
- breathing out through your mouth
Try to relax your shoulders as you breathe out. It can help to have someone gently massaging or pressing on your shoulders as you do this. With practice you should notice that you breathe more deeply as well as more slowly.
This 3-minute video shows breathing techniques to help with long term breathlessness.
Voiceover: These exercises show you how to regain control of your breathing when you are feeling breathless. It can be frightening when you feel breathless and practicing these exercises can help you remain calm when your symptoms are worse.
The first exercise is breathing control. Breathing from your tummy or abdomen is the most efficient way to breathe. It helps to ease your breathing.
Sit upright with your back supported. Relax your arms and shoulders, with your arms by your side. Put one hand just above your belly button. This allows you to feel the movement and know whether you are doing the breathing correctly.
Breathe in through your nose, allowing your tummy to expand. You will feel your hand being pushed by your tummy. Then, breathe out slowly through your mouth. You will now feel your hand fall as your tummy flattens. Repeat this until you have got your breath back. Your breathing should be smooth and quiet. You will feel your chest relax as you become less breathless. It helps to make sure your shoulders are relaxed. This is not always easy but it can help to have someone gently massaging or pressing on your shoulders as you practice the exercise. Practicing this will mean that you eventually will be able to do it whilst standing and even walking if you become breathless.
The next exercise is for sudden or severe breathlessness. It is called pursed lips breathing. It slows the flow of air as you breathe out helping to open your airways and release trapped air. This makes breathing easier.
First, stop what you are doing. And lean forward with your arms supported. Focus on the out breath, breathe out slowly through your mouth, with your lips pursed as if you were going to whistle. Take longer to breathe out than to breathe in. And remind yourself that your breathing will ease soon. Continue to do this for a couple of minutes and then you will feel more in control of your breathing.
It can be easier to walk around and go up stairs if you can control your breathing.
Try matching your breaths to the steps you take.
When going upstairs, breathe in on one step and out on the next couple. Don't rush. It's better to go upstairs slowly than rush up and have to stop and recover at the top.
Planning to make your life easier
You can help yourself by thinking ahead. Make sure the things you need at home during the day are easy to get to. And think about what you are going to do beforehand.
Here are some ideas you can try out:
- Move everything you need downstairs to avoid unnecessary trips up and down.
- Use a cordless phone or a mobile phone.
- Try using a trolley or bag on wheels to carry shopping or washing around.
- For household tasks, plan ahead and get everything you need together before you start.
- Pace yourself and allow rest times – you will get more done if you don't take on too much at once.
Using a fan
Position a fan where it can blow a stream of cool air across your face. This can help to reduce breathlessness. You can also use a hand held portable fan.
Eating and drinking
Chewing and swallowing can be difficult if you are feeling breathless.
Try some of the following tips:
- Have lots of small meals instead of a few large ones.
- Take smaller mouthfuls.
- Avoid foods that are difficult to chew.
- Keep a drink close by to sip through the day.
Remember that you can lose a lot of fluid in your breath, especially if you are breathing through your mouth. Make sure that you drink plenty of fluids. Being dehydrated can make saliva and phlegm stickier. Thick saliva can also make it difficult to chew and swallow.
Asking for help
Many hospitals have specialist clinics for people who have breathing problems. Ask your doctor or nurse to refer you to one in your area.
Staff in the clinic can teach you breathing techniques and much more about coping with breathlessness. If there isn't a special clinic, you could have a chat with a physiotherapist or nurse who specialises in helping people with breathing.
Talking things through may help you to solve a few problems.
If you need oxygen
If you are very breathless you can have oxygen tanks brought to you at home.
You can also get oxygen for when you are away on holiday or travelling.
More information about coping with breathlessness
There are treatments that can help you to breathe more easily and there are things you can do to help yourself.