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How you can help yourself

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This page has information to help you to avoid getting too out of breath and what to do when you are breathless. There is information about


Tips to help you avoid getting too out of breath

Being very short of breath is not usually dangerous or harmful but it can make you feel very frightened. Breathlessness can also make daily living very difficult. It is important to stay as active as possible during your illness and try to find ways to stop getting so breathless. This may mean changing the way you do things so that you use less energy and need less oxygen. One of the best ways you can do all this is to try and plan your daily activities ahead.

Below are tips on how to cope best with

Moving around

The simple movement from your bed to the bathroom can be a major task if you are very breathless. There are a few things that you can do to avoid using up too much energy.

  • Get out of bed slowly – sit on the edge of the bed for a while before standing up
  • Keep the things you use most within easy reach
  • Try not to bend over at the waist to reach something as this makes breathing more difficult. Hold onto something for support and bend at the knees keeping your back upright – this keeps your chest open and lets you breathe more freely
  • Avoid rushing by giving yourself plenty of time for whatever you are doing
  • Avoid climbing stairs too often by planning ahead – bring everything you are going to need from upstairs in one trip
  • When climbing stairs, take your time and match your breaths to the steps you take - breathe in on one step and out on the next couple


Shopping can be stressful at the best of times, especially if the shops are busy and you have to wait in long checkout queues. Being breathless can make coping with these situations difficult. Below are a few things that may make shopping easier for you.

  • Ask a friend or family member for help with weekly shopping or use a shopping trolley or small backpack
  • Try to shop at quiet times – crowds and long queues may make you tired and anxious
  • Save energy and time by internet shopping and have your goods delivered
  • Contact organisations that offer help with transport for shopping and other activities, for example, Shopmobility schemes

Washing and dressing

If you are very breathless then washing and dressing can become a difficult and slow task. But if you follow these tips they may help you feel less tired.

  • Allow plenty of time for taking a shower or a bath, and for getting dressed afterwards
  • Use a waterproof chair in your shower if there is room, or talk to an occupational therapist about having a seat fitted
  • Have a handrail fitted in the bath or shower to help you move around
  • Don't have the water too hot when you take a shower or bath because hot and steamy air can make breathing more difficult
  • Get all your clothes ready before your shower or bath and have them close by
  • Wear loose fitting clothing without buttons that are easy to put on and don't restrict your breathing


Sometimes the thought of going to sleep can be quite frightening if you are feeling very breathless. It is important to try to relax. It may help to follow some of these tips.

  • It is easier to breathe if you are propped up a bit – raise your head on pillows or raise the head of your bed
  • If you cannot sleep or are very breathless when you wake, try the breathing relaxation exercises below
  • Keep a stool or chair and a small table in your bedroom – if your breathing gets very bad in the night, sit up on the side of your bed, rest your feet on the stool and lean your head and arms forward, resting on pillows on the table
  • Open the window or have an electric fan on a low setting overnight

Eating, drinking and food preparation

Chewing and swallowing can be hard if you are feeling breathless, and preparing food can be tiring. Try

  • Eating small frequent meals instead of 3 large ones each day
  • Sitting down when peeling vegetables or washing the dishes
  • Taking smaller mouthfuls
  • Avoiding foods that are difficult to chew
  • Having a nourishing drink close by to sip regularly through the day
  • Using frozen foods – they are easy and take less energy to prepare
  • Buying ready made meals – many these days are nourishing and tasty
  • Preparing a few meals at a time and freezing them in individual containers
  • Getting meals delivered to you by meals on wheels (ask your doctor or nurse about these services)
  • Asking friends or family to come and prepare a few meals for you
  • If you are on oxygen, ask your doctor for nasal tubes you can use when eating and drinking

Breathing and relaxation techniques

Try not to get too frightened if you become breathless, and stay calm if you can. This is easier said than done sometimes. But the more anxious you get, the tighter your muscles will be, and the worse your breathing will become.

Some people find it useful to practise relaxation techniques such as visualisation or hypnotherapy. Once you have learned these techniques, you can use them as soon as you begin to get anxious.

Hypnotherapy and visualisation take a while to learn, but there are a couple of techniques that you can start right away

Below is a short video showing breathing techniques for long term breathlessness. Click on the arrow to watch it.



View a transcript of the video showing breathing techniques for long term breathlessness (opens in new window)

Abdominal breathing

Abdominal breathing means deliberately expanding your abdominal wall when you breathe. Put your hands on your stomach and push them out with your abdomen as you breathe in. Abdominal breathing helps to expand your lungs fully. But it also helps you to relax and control your breathing because you are concentrating on something else, instead of how breathless you are.

Abdominal breathing

Remember – you can’t breathe in properly unless you’ve breathed out first! When people are very anxious about catching their breath, they do often forget to breathe out. Make sure you take enough time to breathe out fully before your next breath in.

Controlled breathing

If you are getting very breathless, stop what you are doing and sit up straight. This will help to get as much oxygen into your lungs as possible. Keep telling yourself that it will ease off soon. Concentrate on

  • Breathing in slowly through your nose
  • Breathing out through your mouth

If you can't sleep or are very breathless when you wake, try to relax. Breathe in through your nose and out through pursed lips (as if you were going to whistle), taking much longer than it took to breathe in. Keep this up for a few minutes and it should help you feel more in control of your breathing. This type of breathing is called the pursed lip technique. The technique slows the flow of air as you breathe out. It helps to open up your airways and releases trapped air making breathing easier. You can use this technique during any activity that makes you feel breathless such as climbing stairs.  

Controlled breathing techniques are very like relaxation exercises. As you breathe out try to relax your shoulders. It can help to have someone gently massaging or pressing on your shoulders as you do this. If you practice this 3 or 4 times a day, you should notice that you are breathing more deeply as well as more slowly.


Many people with breathing problems find it helps to be near a breeze from an open window or to have a small fan in the room. This gets the air moving and often helps you feel less short of breath. If you find this helps you may also find it helpful to carry a small hand held fan when you are out and use it when you feel breathless. 


Other sources of help and support

Some hospitals now have clinics for people who have difficulty with breathing. Ask your doctor or nurse if they know of any in your area. You will be taught the techniques here and much more. Or if there isn't a special clinic, ask to have a chat with a physiotherapist or nurse who specialises in helping people with breathing problems.

Occupational therapists can assess your breathlessness and help you find ways of managing your breathlessness. They can get you equipment for your house, such as rails for stairs or your bathroom.

There are also books and booklets about coping with breathlessness, some of which are free. Look in our reading list and cancer organisations pages.

After reading this section you may feel that you have to change many things about your lifestyle and give up activities you once enjoyed. This can be hard to come to terms with, especially if you were very active and played sport. Give yourself time to adjust and try to think of other ways to enjoy your time. This may be an opportunity to try less physical hobbies you've never had time for – painting, writing, handicrafts, watching movies or reading. Some people find it helpful to join a support group and talk over problems with other people in similar situations. You may also want to look at Cancer Chat - our online forum.

Remember that you are not alone. Other people have gone through similar experiences. Look on our general organisations page for where you can get information and support.

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Updated: 26 October 2014