Decorative image

Breathlessness after chest radiotherapy

Shortness of breath can happen during and after chest radiotherapy. Here are some ways that can help you to cope. 

Short term effects on the lungs

Radiotherapy to the chest area may cause some inflammation of your lungs. 

Soon after the treatment, you might have a dry cough or shortness of breath. This is called acute radiation pneumonitis (pronounced new-mon-eye-tiss). It usually only lasts for a few days or weeks and gradually gets better. Occasionally you might need to breathe some oxygen through a mask until your chest gets better.

Remember that it is very important to let your doctor or nurse know if you suddenly develop breathlessness or if it suddenly gets much worse. It could be due to a chest infection that could make you very ill and you might need antibiotics. 

Sudden breathlessness can also be caused by a blood clot in the lung or severe inflammation of the membrane around the lung. These conditions are serious and need treatment straight away.

You need to tell your radiotherapy doctors if you have a heart condition that makes you breathless or if you have a heart pacemaker. Radiotherapy can make heart conditions worse over many years for some people.

Longer term effects

After radical radiotherapy to the chest, there is a risk of longer term breathing problems. Radical radiotherapy means a long, intensive course of treatment designed to try to cure your cancer.

About 1 in 10 people (10%) develop long term (chronic) radiation pneumonitis. This causes a long term cough and sometimes breathlessness.

These side effects may not happen for many months after your treatment. Over the following years, you might gradually get more breathless.

Let your doctor or nurse know if you notice changes in your breathing any time after your radiotherapy. You might need some treatment if the breathing changes are caused by radiation pneumonitis.

Your doctor will want to monitor your breathing over a few months to get an idea of whether the lung changes are staying the same or getting worse.

Last reviewed: 
22 Mar 2016
  • De Vita, Hellman, and Rosenberg's Cancer: Principles and Practice of Oncology (9th edition)
    De Vita, V.T., Lawrence, T.S. and Rosenberg S.A.
    Lippincott, Williams and Wilkins, 2011

Information and help

Dangoor sponsorship

About Cancer generously supported by Dangoor Education since 2010.