Signs and symptoms of breathlessness

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
  • using your shoulders and the muscles in your upper chest to help you breathe
  • anxiety or panicky feelings

At first you might become breathless when you are walking or climbing the stairs. In time you might be breathless even when resting and sitting down.

Possible causes

Other illnesses can cause breathlessness, not just cancer. For example:

  • chest infection
  • low haemoglobin levels (anaemia)
  • heart problems
  • lung diseases such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)
  • asthma
Talk to your doctor if you are worried about your symptoms, or if they are getting worse.


Breathing problems can be uncomfortable. 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 feel more in control of your breathing.

  • Symptom management in advanced cancer (4th edition)
    R Twycross, A Wilcock and C Stark Toller Ltd, 2009

  • Oxford Textbook of Palliative Medicine (5th edition)
    N Cherny, M Fallon, S Kaasa and others
    Oxford University Press, 2015

Last reviewed: 
19 Nov 2019

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