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How you can help yourself

Information 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. Planning your activities ahead will help you do this.

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. 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 and bringing what you 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

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.

To make shopping easier:

  • ask a friend or family member for help with weekly shopping
  • try to shop at quiet times to avoid crowds and long queues
  • shop online and have your goods delivered
  • contact organisations that offer help with transport for shopping and other activities, for example, Shopmobility schemes

Washing and dressing

When you are very breathless washing and dressing can become a difficult and slow task.

These tips can help you manage:

  • 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

Sleeping

Sometimes the thought of going to sleep can be quite frightening if you are feeling very breathless. It is important to try to relax.

There are some things you can do to make breathing easier.

  • It is easier to breathe if you are propped up a bit. Raise your head on pillows or raise the head of your bed.
  • 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.
  • If you cannot sleep or are very breathless when you wake, try breathing relaxation exercises.

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 amounts frequently instead of fewer larger meals 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
Last reviewed: 
26 Oct 2014
  • Breathlessness in cancer patients - implications, management and challenges

    S Thomas and others (2011) 

    European journal of oncology nursing  Dec;15(5):459-69

  • Effectiveness of a hand-held fan for breathlessness: a randomised phase II trial

    Bausewein C and others (2010) 

    BMC Palliative care

  • The etiology and management of intractable breathlessness in patients with advanced cancer: a systematic review of pharmacological therapy

    S Booth and others (2008) 

    National clinical practice oncology Feb;5(2):90-100

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