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A quick guide to what's on this page

Coping with breathlessness

Being breathless can be hard to live with and can make you feel very tired. Some days may seem harder than others. But there are things that can help you to cope. If you are more breathless than usual, coughing up phlegm, or have a temperature, you may have a chest infection. Contact your GP or specialist nurse as you may need a course of antibiotics.

Feeling anxious

Anxiety can make you more breathless. Try to slow your breathing and concentrate on breathing in and out slowly. It may help to learn a relaxation technique. There are lots of books, tapes, CDs and DVDs available about relaxation that you can get from your local library.

Changing how you breathe

Breathing faster and tensing your shoulders make it harder for you to breathe. Try to control your breathing. Think about breathing in slowly through your nose, and breathing out through your mouth. This is almost like doing relaxation exercises.

Tips to make life easier for yourself

  • Make sure the things you need during the day are easy to get to
  •  Use a trolley or bag on wheels to carry things and save your energy
  • Pace yourself and allow rest times
  • Don't try to take on too much at once
  • When going upstairs match your breath to the steps you take and take it slowly
  • Have lots of small meals instead of a few large ones
  • Take small mouthfuls
  • Avoid foods that are difficult to chew
  • Drink plenty of fluids to stop saliva becoming sticky
  • Position a fan to blow a stream of cool air across your face or use a hand held portable fan

 

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How you may feel

Being breathless can be hard to live with and can make you feel very tired and as though everything is a struggle. Some days may seem harder than others. But there are some tips on this page to help you cope.

 

Colds and infections

If you are more breathless than usual and are coughing up phlegm or have a temperature, you may have a chest infection. People with lung cancer can be more prone to these. Contact your GP or specialist nurse. You may need a course of antibiotics to clear up any infection. Then your breathing will be easier.

 

Feeling anxious

If you are very anxious, this will probably make you feel more breathless. This can be very frightening and make you feel even more anxious. If you feel panicky, try to slow your breathing. Concentrate on breathing in and out slowly.

It may help to try the ideas below in the changing how you breathe section when you are not anxious so that you are confident about using them. It can also help to learn a relaxation technique. There are a lot of books, tapes, CDs and DVDs available. Some support groups can lend you books and other resources. Or you may be able to borrow some from your local library.

 

Changing how you breathe

When you are breathless you may find that

  • You breathe faster
  • Your shoulders tense up

You may feel that this helps you. But over a long period it can make it harder and more tiring for you to breathe. Try to control your breathing. It can help to think about

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

This is almost like doing 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. With practice you should notice that you are breathing more deeply as well as more slowly.

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)

 

Planning to make your life easier

You can help yourself by thinking ahead. Make sure the things you need at home during the day are easy to get to. And think about what you are going to do beforehand. Here are some ideas you can try out.

  • Move everything you need downstairs to avoid unnecessary trips up and down
  • You may want to have another phone point put in so you don't have to get up when it rings
  • You could use a cordless phone or a mobile
  • If carrying shopping or washing is difficult try a trolley or bag on wheels to save your energy
  • If you have to do some household tasks, plan ahead and get together everything you need before you start
  • Pace yourself and allow rest times as you will get more done if you don't try to take on too much at once
 

Using a fan

Have a fan positioned where it can blow a stream of cool air across your face. This can help to reduce breathlessness. You can also use a hand held portable fan.

 

Moving around

It can be easier to walk and go up stairs if you use the ideas above in the changing how you breathe section. Try matching your breaths to the steps you take. Breathe in on one step and out on the next couple. Don't rush. It's better to go upstairs slowly than rush up and have to stop and recover at the top.

 

Eating and drinking

Chewing and swallowing can be hard if you are feeling breathless. Try some of the following tips.

  • Have lots of small meals instead of a few large ones
  • Take smaller mouthfuls
  • Avoid foods that are difficult to chew
  • Keep a drink to hand to sip through the day

Remember that you can lose a lot of fluid in your breath. Especially if you are breathing through your mouth. Make sure that you drink plenty of fluids. Being dehydrated can make saliva and phlegm stickier. Thick saliva can also make it difficult to chew and swallow.

 

Asking for help

Many hospitals now have specialist clinics for people who have breathing problems. Ask your doctor or nurse if they know of any in your area. Staff there can teach you breathing techniques and much more about coping with breathlessness. If there isn't a special clinic, you could have a chat with a physiotherapist or nurse who specialises in helping people with breathing. Talking things through may help you to solve a few problems.

 

If you need oxygen

You can have oxygen tanks brought to you if you are very breathless. We have information about how to arrange oxygen at home in our question and answer section. We also have information about how to arrange oxygen for holidays.

 

More information about breathing problems

There is detailed information about breathing problems in our section about coping physically with cancer which you may find helpful.

Our lung cancer organisations page gives details of people who can give information about coping with breathlessness. Some organisations can put you in touch with a cancer support group. Our lung cancer reading list has information about books and leaflets on coping with lung cancer and its symptoms.

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Updated: 31 March 2014