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Signs and symptoms of breathlessness

Read about the symptoms of breathlessness and some of the possible causes.


Symptoms of breathlessness can include:

  • difficulty catching your breath
  • noisy breathing
  • very fast, shallow breaths
  • an increase in your pulse rate
  • wheezing
  • chest pain
  • skin that looks pale and slightly blue, especially around your mouth
  • cold, clammy skin
  • to use your shoulders and the muscles in your upper chest to help you breathe
  • anxiety or panicky feelings

If you are becoming breathless, you may notice this at first when you are climbing stairs or just walking around at home.

If you become more breathless, you may notice it even when you are sitting down resting.

Possible causes

Other illnesses, apart from cancer, can cause these symptoms.

Talk to your doctor if you are worried about your symptoms, or if they are getting worse.


Having difficulty breathing can be quite frightening. You might feel very panicky. But it is important to understand which comes first.

Sometimes, people having anxiety attacks will ‘over breathe’ and become breathless. But in this case, it is their anxiety making them breathless and not the other way round.

If you do have shortness of breath and you get panicky, trying some breathing and relaxation techniques will help you to feel more in control of your breathing.

Last reviewed: 
25 Oct 2014
  • Symptom management in advanced cancer (4th edition)

    Twycross R, Wilcock A and Toller S (2009) 

    Radcliffe Medical Press Ltd


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