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Keeping well: breathlessness

What is breathlessness?

Breathlessness (dyspnoea) is the sensation of not being able to get enough air. It can be a very frightening feeling and limits even simple activities. Knowing how to help someone who is breathless can bring confidence in the ability to cope with this distressing symptom.

The important thing to remember, if breathlessness makes you panicky, is that you will continue to breathe.

What causes it?

  • the illness itself
  • secondary problems related to the illness, e.g. anaemia
  • chest infections
  • general weakness
  • anxiety or stress or
  • chronic lung or heart disease.

What carers can do

  • Try to stay calm to help give reassurance.
  • Find a relaxed, supportive, resting position.
  • Encourage slow breaths out… this is more helpful and effective than emphasising taking breaths in, and it’s easier to do.
  • Sometimes distraction can help – try the TV or music.
  • Ensure the room is well ventilated, e.g. open window or use a fan.
  • Observe for signs of infection, e.g. high temperature or coughing up green or yellow phlegm.
  • Check that prescribed medication is taken regularly.
  • Give medicines in between for bad attacks.

Additional helpful advice

  • A referral to one of our physiotherapists may be helpful for breathing exercises, breathing control and coping strategies.
  • Ask your nurse or physiotherapist for our breathlessness leaflet which gives helpful advice on strategies to help you manage breathlessness. We run a regular fatigue and breathlessness gym group at the Sydenham site.

When to call for help

If there are signs of infection the GP needs to know as antibiotics may be required.

If the symptom of breathlessness persists and you are concerned then ring the hospice.