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Breathlessness after chest radiotherapy

Nurse and patients talking about cancer

This page tells you about shortness of breath during and after chest radiotherapy. There is information about

 

Short term effects

Radiotherapy may cause some inflammation of your lungs. Soon after radiotherapy to your chest, you may develop 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 some oxygen until your chest gets better.

Remember that it is very important to let your doctor 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 may need antibiotics. Sudden breathlessness may 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 may gradually get more breathless.

Let your doctor know if you notice changes in your breathing any time after your radiotherapy. If the breathing changes are caused by radiation pneumonitis you may need some treatment. Your doctor will want to monitor your breathing over a few months to get an idea of whether the lung changes are developing. There is detailed information about coping with breathing problems in the section about coping physically with cancer.

 

Where to get more information

There is more information about the possible long term side effects of radiotherapy in this section. There are also books and booklets about radiotherapy, some of which are free. Some of the general cancer organisations can also give you information.

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Updated: 4 July 2012